DAVID GREENE, host:
Now, to Iraq, where 49,000 American troops remain. Of them, 1,600 are assigned to advise and train the Iraqi military and police. One of the key areas is Iraq's air force. It was destroyed as a result of the Gulf War in 1991 and the U.S. invasion in 2003. Now, the U.S. Air Force is helping the Iraqis to rebuild it. It's just one component of what some describe as an emerging long-term strategic relationship between the two countries.
NPR's Mike Shuster looked in on the training in Iraq.
MIKE SHUSTER: Saddam Hussein spent a lot of money on his air force. It had Soviet and French jet fighters and all the necessary infrastructure to maintain them combat-ready. Iraqi fighter pilots went to war in the 1980s against Iran. That war took its toll and only three years after that, Saddam Hussein was at war again - this time against the United States.
Lieutenant Colonel HAMID HUSSEIN (Iraqi Air Force): We tried to pursue two F-15s and we couldn't handle that that time, 1991 so.
SHUSTER: Lieutenant Colonel Hamid Hussein sits in an air conditioned office at Camp Liberty in Baghdad. It's in the office of Brigadier General Tony Rock, who is now in charge of the U.S. project to rebuild the Iraqi air force. Rock and Hamid look at each other and ponder the possibility that they might have flown missions against each other.
Brigadier General TONY ROCK (U.S. Air Force; Director, Iraqi Training and Advisory Mission): We were both in the Gulf War. I flew the F-15 while he was flying the Mirage F-1.
SHUSTER: Now, the two are working together to build a new Iraqi air force - a daunting challenge, says Colonel Hamid.
Col. HAMID: After 2003, we started almost from zero.
Gen. ROCK: The Iraqi air force and the Iraqi helicopter capabilities were destroyed in two wars in a 20-year span.
SHUSTER: So, the Americans are starting from scratch, training young Iraqi cadets to fly and then training the new pilots to train other novices, and much more, says General Rock.
Gen. ROCK: It's really not just about acquiring airplanes. Sometimes buying equipment is the easiest thing you do. It's developing people and it's also making sure that your infrastructure - runways, control towers, hangars, maintenance facilities - are all evolving at the same rate.
(Soundbite of man speaking on radio
SHUSTER: Young Iraqi pilots are already in the air, flying every day with their American trainers, learning skills like aerial intelligence and surveillance, in this King Air dual prop plane. The newest pilot trainees are stationed at Tikrit, north of Baghdad. The trainees fly a single prop plane called the T-6. They fly during the day and at night to different parts of Iraq.
And when they return, there is debriefing by the American instructors, sometimes in front of a group of about a dozen trainees. In one recent session, trainees were presented with a problem, what to do if fire in an engine breaks out. Captain Josh Martin was critical of how a young Iraqi pilot handled the scenario.
Captain JOSH MARTIN (U.S. Air Force): He really hasn't established what is wrong with the aircraft. He just had lights on the glare shield. So, once the fire is confirmed and everything like that then run with the rest of the checklist.
SHUSTER: Colonel Hamid also takes part in these sessions. The Iraqi trainees are his men. Hamid is not satisfied with the way one trainee led another through a complex scenario involving navigating to a runway under duress.
Col. HAMID: And you let him to eject was not reasonable reason. He should be able to make the runway.
SHUSTER: The Tikrit base is also home to the Iraqi Air Force College, which began operating only last September.
Brigadier General Karim Aziz commands the college. He too was a fighter pilot in Saddam Hussein's air force but he said he had no trouble making the decision to come back and work with the Americans.
Brigadier General KARIM AZIZ (Iraqi Air Force): You know the situation outside. I mean, the situation around Iraq, outside the border, many enemies, many challenge in the front of Iraq. We have to do something for our country.
SHUSTER: The United States is committed to removing the last of its troops by the end of December. This presents some problems. Back in Baghdad, Lieutenant General Michael Ferriter, who is in charge of the Iraqi training and advisory mission, acknowledges there are gaps in Iraq's capacity to defend itself. The U.S. needs more time, he says, first to get the army capable of defending Iraq's borders.
Lieutenant General MICHAEL FERRITER (U.S. Air Force; Commander, NATO Training Mission): That'll take a little bit of time for them to get there. It'll go beyond December of this year.
SHUSTER: The Air Force component will need even more time, says General Ferriter.
Lt. Gen. FERRITER: They are fielding air operation centers and long-range radars and that allows them to sense what happens in their airspace, and it'll take until the summer of next before they can sense the entire airspace.
SHUSTER: Plus this: recently, it was disclosed that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki wanted to buy 18 American F-16s at a cost of about $900 million. But then demonstrations broke out across the country, protesters expressing their dissatisfaction with the government. The F-16 purchase was then put on hold.
So, a variety of obstacles - time, money and public protest remain, and the pursuit of a long-term strategic relationship between Iraq and the U.S.
Mike Shuster, NPR News, Baghdad.
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