The Soufan Group reports: Tehran’s employment of direct airpower in Iraq is a significant increase in its involvement and willingness to take military risks to defeat the so-called Islamic State. In terms of airpower, Iran had previously confined itself to returning to the Iraqi Air Force seven combat aircraft that the Saddam Hussein regime had flown to Iran at the start of the 1991 Gulf war to avoid destruction by U.S. and coalition air power. Because Iraq’s pilots do not have much experience operating combat jets, Iranian pilots flew the returned aircraft for Iraq; Iran acknowledged the death of one of its pilots at the hands of Islamic State anti-aircraft fire in October.
To date, the bulk of Iran’s involvement in Iraq has consisted of weapons shipments to the Iraq Security Forces (ISF) and Kurdish peshmerga fighters, reactivation and funding of Shi’a militia forces Iran formed in 2004, and military advice by the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC-QF). Photographs of the head of the IRGC-QF, General Qasim Sulaymani, have appeared frequently on social media on various Iraq battlefields, providing advice to Iraqi Shi’a militia and ISF commanders.
The Iranian airstrike in early December was reportedly conducted near the town of Jalula, a mostly Kurdish town in Diyala Province that lies only about 25 miles from the Iranian border. In late November, Kurdish peshmerga recaptured Jalula and nearby towns from Islamic State fighters, but these fighters remained nearby and continue to pose a threat to those towns and areas closer to the Iranian border. At the start of the major Islamic State offensive in June, Tehran had declared it would act militarily if Islamic State fighters moved to within 40 miles of Iran’s border; the Iranian airstrike was a direct enforcement of that threat. [Continue reading…]