Herald Sun (AU)
AUSTRALIAN special forces have uncovered a vast trove of weapons including much of the surviving Iraqi air force, munitions and nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) protective equipment on an Iraqi airbase west of Baghdad.
Among the finds are 51 MiG jet fighters, mostly older MiG 21s but including three advanced MiG 25 Foxbats, plus armoured vehicles, anti-aircraft guns and a French-made Roland anti-aircraft missile system.
It’s not known how many of the aircraft remained in flying condition.
Also found were bunkers capable of withstanding nuclear, chemical and biological attack plus training materials on weapons of mass destruction.
Some 200 Australian troops, including members of the Special Air Service Regiment, Commandos, Incident Response Regiment and bomb disposal experts are continuing to search the base.
Commander of the Australian forces in the Middle East, Brigadier Maurie McNarn, said it was originally expected the job would take no more than two or three days.
“We are now six days in. It was far more extensive than we first thought. This is one of the major air bases,” he said.
Coalition air forces attacked the facility early in the war, using special bombs to crater the runways so they could not be used. As it was, the Iraqi air force showed little inclination to fight.
Had they done so they could have caused major problems for the coalition in the early days of the conflict.
“We were always worried, even though their air force gave early indications that they didn’t want to fight – they are not silly, they know what our capability is – that it was always there,” Brigadier McNarn said.
“We were still surprised at the number of aircraft and the amount of munitions.”
Australian forces occupied the base against minimal opposition. Some Iraqi gunners tried to turn an anti-aircraft gun on the Australian troops but a few shots over their heads sent them running.
Brigadier McNarn said there were no confirmed weapons of mass destruction but it was still early days in searching the vast network of underground bunkers and weapons stores.
“If we come across anything we think might be weapons of mass destruction, what we will do is mark the area, picket it then let the experts in,” he said.
“At this stage what we have turned up are training facilities, personal protective equipment and people prepared to operate in a NBC environment.
“We didn’t have any of that sort of equipment. Yet they had extensive preparations to operate in an environment where someone used it. That only leaves them.”
Brigadier McNarn said coalition forces had found extraordinary amounts of munitions and weapons across Iraq, much apparently acquired in contravention of United Nations sanctions.
“We have heard about the smuggling and the fact that Iraq could not afford to buy equipment or medicines for their hospitals,” he said.
“You can see where the money went when you open these bunkers. It will actually be a significant job to either secure or dispose of this sort of equipment.”
Brigadier McNarn said some of the equipment might be destroyed, some retained for the new Iraqi military while a few select items might find their way to the Australian War Memorial.