US agrees to new rules as Iraq cracks down on use of its airspace
U.S. military officials in Iraq will now seek out Iraqi approval before launching any air operations, a move made a day after that nation’s prime minister announced a ban of unauthorized flights, including those involving coalition forces fighting ISIS.
Top leaders with Operation Inherent Resolve, the joint task force leading anti-ISIS efforts in the country, have met with Iraqi defense officials to discuss the mandate to have every helicopter, unmanned aerial vehicle and fighter aircraft launch pre-approved, according to a Friday release from the Pentagon.
“As guests within Iraq’s sovereign borders, CJTF-OIR complies with all Iraqi laws and direction from the Government of Iraq,” the release said. “The U.S.-led coalition immediately complied with all directions received from our Iraqi partners as they implemented the Prime Minister’s order.”
Under the agreement, coalition forces would have to route any requests to fly through the Iraqi government, including urgent flights in support of coalition troops fighting against ISIS in the country’s north.
A new system could hamstring response times to flight requests, according to a former Inter-Agency Take Force director at U.S. Special Operations Command.
"The biggest concern would be, if there’s an immediate call to respond to troops in danger ... quickly routing so that any kind of [quick reaction force] could get to the troops in contact or in immediate need of support,” retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Robert Holmes told Military Times on Friday.
It would be less of an issue for planned airstrikes or other missions, but a catastrophe when there are minutes to scramble aircraft and save lives.
“If it were up to me, I would ensure that I had a U.S. military liaison officer in that command center to expedite any kind of emergent or immediate request," Holmes said, down to single-digit seconds. "These are smart guys out there now, and quite frankly, maybe they’ve already done that.”
Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi had threatened to treat any unauthorized flights through Iraqi airspace as hostile, the Associated Press reported Thursday.
That included reconnaissance aircraft, both manned and unmanned, as well as helicopters and fighter jets, which have been allowed in Iraqi air space since the joint anti-ISIS campaign in late 2014.
Coalition flights ― including surveillance, close-air support and medical evacuations ― will still be authorized, but requests will be routed to a centralized office to better keep track of them.
Mahdi also ordered any military bases or weapons caches moved away from major cities.
The move came in response to an explosion Monday at Camp Falcon, also known as al-Saqr, near Baghdad. The former American base, now controlled by national police, has a weapons depot with a stockpile controlled by local militia groups.
“The blast shook the Iraqi capital and sent explosives and mortar shells shooting into the sky, damaging nearby homes and terrifying residents who ran into the streets with their cellphones. Black smoke billowed over the city for hours afterward,” the AP reported.
The cause of the explosion is unknown, but officials have blamed overheating, while rumors have flown that it was an Israeli airstrike targeting weapons stored by Iran-backed militias.
It was the latest in a series of explosions at munitions warehouses, sparking suspicion that airstrikes had targeted the stockpiles.