x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Iraqi pilots face foes from past

Widows of victims say assassinations are being carried out as payback for pilots' role in the 1980-1988 Gulf war.

Hard facts are difficult to find in Iraq, but there are indications that a systematic campaign has been carried out to eradicate former Iraqi air force officers.
Hard facts are difficult to find in Iraq, but there are indications that a systematic campaign has been carried out to eradicate former Iraqi air force officers.

BAGHDAD // Her husband was an elderly man, almost 70, and he suffered from diabetes, so Umm Alia had assumed he would be as safe as anyone could be in post-invasion Iraq. Who would bother to hurt him? They were not a rich family, they were not influential and they were living out a humble retirement on a military pension in relative anonymity. Yet none of these factors proved to be any kind of protection. One day Abu Alia went out shopping and he disappeared, never to be seen again alive by his family. His past, as an Iraqi air force fighter pilot, had apparently caught up with him.

"It was two weeks after he went missing that we got a phone call from some people who said they had kidnapped him," Umm Alia explained. She asked not to be fully identified for fear it would place her in danger. "They phoned and demanded US$20,000 (Dh73,400) in exchange for his safe return." Desperate to save their father, Umm Alia's four sons sold their house and raised enough money to meet the ransom. A handover was set up, with a bag full of $100 bills to be left at a specific time in a specific place on a Baghdad motorway.

With the money collected, the kidnappers reneged on their promise to return Abu Alia, 68, to his home in the Sabaa Abkar neighbourhood of Baghdad. Sabaa Abkar is near Adamiyah, once targeted by US forces as home to many who benefited from Saddam Hussein's largesse, and now a place synonymous with the insurgency. But instead of being sent home safe and well, as had been agreed, his corpse was dumped on the family's doorstep.

That was 2005. Almost three years later, no arrests have been made and, more than likely, no real investigation ever took place. Authorities rarely bother with such formalities in Iraq, perhaps because there are so many killings that no police force could hope to keep up with the case load. Umm Alia said she believes her husband was killed because he had taken part in air raids on Tehran during the bloody eight-year war between Iran and Iraq. Hard facts are difficult to find in Iraq, but there are indications that a systematic campaign has been carried out to eradicate former Iraqi air force officers. Scores are reported to have been killed, and hundreds of ex-air force personnel have gone missing or disappeared into hiding.

Iraqi officers and their families accuse the Iranians of conducting the assassinations in revenge for the pilots' role in the war. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Iranians died in the conflict, which started in 1980 when Saddam launched an invasion. As the war ground into stalemate, both sides attacked civilian targets in each other's capitals. The Iraqi air force carried out numerous raids, including attacks on passenger trains and an airliner unloading civilians at Shiraz International Airport.

"My husband was one of Iraq's best pilots and he played a very active role in the bombing of Tehran," Umm Alia said. "He helped to kill thousands of Iranian soldiers and because we were at war at the time, I am proud of that. He was doing his duty. "I am sure - I have no doubt in my mind - that he was murdered by Iranian agents or by someone who was paid by Iranian agents. He was murdered in cold blood out of revenge for what happened in that war."

According to a report in Azzaman, a Baghdad-based Arabic newspaper with an international edition published in London, Iranian intelligence units are behind the air force killings, paying a $50,000 bounty for the head of any pilot who took part in attacking Iran. Umm Alia was adamant that the current war in Iraq had turned into an extension of the Iran-Iraq war, with Tehran seeking to achieve a victory today that it had been denied in the 1980s.

"Iran wants to take over Iraq and have its own people running our country," Umm Alia, who is 45, said. "That way they will say they won in the end and achieved their occupation." The current Iraqi government is led by political parties that took refuge from Saddam in Iran. Members of these parties received military training and support from Tehran during their years in exile. They returned to govern Iraq after the fall of Baghdad in 2003 and many of their critics see them as little more than Iranian puppets.

In addition to the nationalist tensions, there is a sectarian dimension to the suspicions many Iraqis have of Iran. Iran is a Shiite Muslim country. Under Saddam, minority Sunnis had ruled Iraq, but with him gone, the majority Shiites have taken over the reigns of power. Sunnis from across the Middle East have expressed their alarm about a spread of the Shia faith, which extremists consider to be a polluted form of Islam.

In Baghdad's Tunis neighbourhood, not far from Umm Alia's home, another pilot's widow told a story with similar foundations. Umm Gaith, a mother of one, said her husband, Abu Gaith, was abducted and then released when his captors realised he had not taken part in the Iran-Iraq war. "My husband was in the air force, but did not graduate as a pilot until two months after the war with Iran finished," said Umm Gaith, who is 40 and teaches chemistry. "One day he was kidnapped and we had to pay a $40,000 ransom to get him freed, but he did come back."

To raise the money to pay the ransom, Umm Gaith had to sell her car and her husband's car and to sell gold jewellery she had received as a present from the man she desperately wanted to free. According to Umm Gaith - she also asked not to be fully identified out of concerns for her safety - her husband said his captors had admitted to working on behalf of Iran. "He told me they questioned him and asked him in detail about his role in the war," she said. "They said if he really had not graduated into the air force until after the war, he would be set free. But if he had taken part in any bombing on Iran he would be killed."

Badly shaken by the 2005 ordeal, and $40,000 poorer, Abu Gaith, who had not worked since the fall of Saddam, decided to flee to Syria. He never made it there alive; he was killed en route, as has happened to so many other Iraqis. Iran denies taking part in covert activities inside Iraq since 2003, and insists it is playing a constructive role in helping to stabilise the war-ravaged country. Both the US and Iraqi governments claim that Iranian groups, either with or without the support of the authorities in Tehran, have been involved in insurgent activity.

Adel Aladham, an Iraqi military analyst, said he believed Iran had taken revenge on Iraqi pilots for their attacks on civilian targets. "Iran took advantage of the poor security situation, especially in Baghdad, to settle some old scores," he said. "Even if they didn't do it directly, I think it's fair to say they paid money to groups to do the work for them." nlatif@thenational.ae