Russian fighter planes and military advisers have begun arriving in Iraq to help stem the advance of ISIS forces, after embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki complained that the US was too slow in fulfilling its pledges of air support.
Russian media, citing unidentified official sources, say that Iraq has urgently requested help from Moscow "to raise the Iraqi army’s combat readiness in its fight against terrorists."
According to the reports, the first five of twelve Sukhoi Su-25 "Frogfoot" ground attack fighters ordered by Iraq have already arrived in Baghdad in a disassembled state aboard a Russian transport plane, along with an undisclosed number of Russian military experts.
The Su-25 was developed in the 1970s to be the former Soviet Union's answer to the US Air Force's highly successful A-10 "Warthog" close support fighter.
"The Sukhoi Su-25 is an air-ground support and anti-terrorism mission aircraft. In these difficult times, we are in great need of such aircraft. With God’s help, we will be able to deploy them to support our ground forces on a mission against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant militants within the next 3-4 days," the Kremlin-funded English-language RT network quoted Iraqi Army Lieutenant General Anwar Hamad Amen Ahmed as saying.
The planes were flown into Baghdad just one day after Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, speaking in Damascus, Syria, said that Russia can be relied upon to help countries of the region fight spreading jihad.
"Russia will not stand idly toward some groups' attempts to spread terrorism in the region, including Syria and Iraq," he said.
Russian experts say that Iraq contracted to buy the Su-25s long before the current crisis broke out, but that Moscow may be rushing the deliveries in light of the military emergency facing the Maliki regime.
"It's not controversial, at least. Pretty much everyone agrees that helping out Baghdad in the battle against ISIS is a good thing," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow-based foreign policy journal. "But I don't think this is part of any larger Russian plan concerning Iraq. Nobody knows how things are going to go there."
Last week, in an interview with BBC Arabic, Mr. Maliki complained that the US was dragging its heels in fulfilling a $1.9 billion contract initiated in 2011 to supply 36 F-16 fighters to Iraq. According to US media reports, the first of those F-16s was turned over to the Iraqi military in early June.
But he complained that the US was taking a "long, very slow way" and delaying the jets' delivery to desperate Iraqi forces.
"We shouldn't have just bought US jets, we should have bought British, French and Russian jets to provide air support. If we had air support, none of this would have happened," Maliki is quoted as saying.