Iraq has yet to assemble a force of jet fighters, and since the shortest route forIsraeli strike fighters to Iran is through Iraqi airspace, observers conclude that the U.S. exit makes the Jewish state’s mission planning a lot easier.
Army Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, the topU.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said theIraqi military will maintain radars to monitor the country’s airspace, but it has not taken possession of American F-16s to guard that space.
“The country has a capable and improving capability to see the airspace, a viable system to provide command and control, but no system to defeat incoming air threats until it gets either the F-16s or ground-based systems or, optimally, some of both,” Gen. Buchanan told The Washington Times.
Iraq made the first payment in September for 18 F-16s that will not arrive until next fall at the earliest. This means Israel would have a theoretical window of about 12 months if it wants to fly over Iraq unimpeded by theIraqi air force.
“Our departing Iraq will be a huge strategic mistake,” he said of the Dec. 31 deadline for all U.S. forces to leave.
“I would hope we would jump to defend Iraqi airspace,” said James Carafano, a military analyst at the Heritage Foundation. “These are the kinds of contingency plans that ought to be put in place.”
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, like his predecessor, Robert M. Gates, has downplayed the impact that an airstrike might have on Iran’s quest for an atomic bomb. The Islamic republic has denied that it is trying to make a nuclear weapon.
“The indication is that, at best, it might postpone it maybe one, possibly two years,” said Mr. Panetta, who also has mentioned three years as a possible delay. “It depends on the ability to truly get the targets that we’re after. Frankly, some of those targets have been difficult to get at.”
He added: “You always have the last resort of military action, but it must be the last resort, not the first.”
Zalman Shoval, a special envoy for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said that when dealing with someone like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a three-year detail may turn out to be significant.
“When you look at someone who denies the Holocaust and makes no secret of his intention to wipe out the state of Israel, and is making a major effort to lay his hands on a nuclear weapon in order to do that then you say to yourself lots of things can happen in three years in Iran,” Mr. Shoval told The Times.
“You don’t have to take it for granted that if something is held up for three years, then after the three years he comes back with a bang. Who knows?”
The problem Israeli pilots would face is first getting to Iranian airspace, then penetrating the country’s multilayered air defenses.