U.S. to leave Iraqi airspace clear for strategic Israeli route to Iran

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The U.S. military’s fast-approaching Dec. 31 exit from Iraq, which has no way to defend its airspace, puts Israel in a better place strategically to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Iraq has yet to assemble a force of jet fighters, and since the shortest route for Israeli 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 top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said the Iraqi 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 the Iraqi air force.

Retired Air Force Gen. Thomas McInerney, who advocates a U.S. strategic bombing raid to destroy Iran’s nuclear sites, agreed that Iraq’s open airspace would make it easier for an Israeli mission.

“Yes, it will be,” he said. “However, it will be much easier for Iranian forces to get to Israel through Iraq via land and air.”

Gen. McInerney said he thinks there is a good chance that Iran, stretched economically by Western sanctions and fearing threats from Israel, will launch a war against the Jewish state through Iraq.

“Our departing Iraq will be a huge strategic mistake,” he said of the Dec. 31 deadline for all U.S. forces to leave.

Iraq’s ruling Shiite majority has historic ties to Iran’s dominant Shiite society, but Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has warned Tehran against meddling in his country’s politics.

Unknown is the role of U.S. jet fighters stationed outside Iraq but within striking distance from Navy carriers in the Persian Gulf, or possibly Kuwait.

“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.

In an appearance this month at the Brookings Institution, Mr. Panetta said U.S strikes might set back the nuclear program two years and acknowledged that some Iranian targets remain elusive.

“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?”

Israeli news reports say that Mr. Netanyahu has tried to build a political consensus to strike Iran.

Israel’s potent air force includes long-range F-15Is, a specially configured version of the U.S. Air Force Strike Eagle. It is capable of flying low and at night while carrying bunker-busting bombs.

The problem Israeli pilots would face is first getting to Iranian airspace, then penetrating the country’s multilayered air defenses.

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