WASHINGTON — Deepening its involvement in the crisis in Iraq, Iran has sent three Russian-made attack planes to the Iraqi government that could be deployed against the Sunni militants who have wreaked havoc on Iraqi military forces, the New York Times reported Tuesday, citing unnamed U.S. and Iraqi officials.
Delivery of the Su-25 aircraft, which U.S. officials said had already conducted missions in western and northern Iraq, is the latest step Iran has taken to help Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki battle the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and expand its influence as Iraqi politicians struggle to form a new government.
A U.S. official, who declined to be identified because he was discussing intelligence reports, told the New York Times that at least one of the planes had been flown by an Iranian pilot. A senior Iraqi official, however, insisted that the aircraft were only being piloted by Iraqis. He said the planes originally belonged to the Iraqi air force and were flown to Iran during the 1991 Persian Gulf War for safekeeping.
The deployment of the Su-25s, which the Iraqi Ministry of Defense showed being loaded with bombs and ammunition, came amid reports that an Iranian officer had recently been killed near Samarra, where Iraqi forces are trying to defend a Shia shrine against an ISIS attack. Two U.S. officials said the Iranian, whom the Iranian IRNA news agency identified as Col. Shoja'at Alamdari Mourjani, had been with an Iranian drone unit and was hit by an ISIS mortar attack. The senior Iraqi official insisted, however, that the man killed near Samarra was an Iranian religious tourist who worked in the aviation industry in Iran.
Iraq's need for air power is clear. Its air force has consisted of several Cessna planes that carry U.S.-supplied Hellfire missiles, as well as an assortment of American and Russian-supplied helicopters, which the Iraqi military used during its recent fight with ISIS in Tikrit.
The United States has sold Iraq F-16 warplanes, the first of which was to have been sent this fall. But the delivery date is now uncertain because the U.S. contractors who have supported the program were evacuated from the Balad air base during the ISIS offensive. Iraq recently announced it was also buying Su-25s from Russia, but those aircraft are not yet believed to be in operation.
Meeting of Parliament: The Iraqi Parliament on Tuesday set its next meeting for Sunday as it tries again to form a new government after a failed attempt last week. Parliament's administrative office had told lawmakers Monday there would be no session until Aug. 12. It was met with dismay by other nations.