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Diplomats: Iranians Painting Their Air Force Insignia on Iraq Jets

April 23, 1991 GMT

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) _ Iranian crews have begun painting their air force insignia on some of the Iraqi warplanes that were mysteriously flown into the Islamic republic during the Gulf War, diplomats said Tuesday.

The claim, which could not be independently confirmed, indicates Tehran plans to keep at least some of the military aircraft that sought refuge from the allied air offensive in neighboring Iran.

In another sign that Tehran plans to hold on to the planes, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati said Sunday that only 22 aircraft, including some airliners plundered from Kuwait, ″would be returned when the crisis is over.″

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The rest, he said, either crashed or were shot down by allied jet fighters before they could land.

He did not specify which types of aircraft were among the 22 cited, but stressed the fate of the planes would be decided by Iran and Iraq with the help of the United Nations.

Iraq insisted April 12 that 148 of its military and civilian planes had flown to Iran. U.S. military spokesmen said 137 Iraqi planes were in Iran.

The Iraqis listed the 115 military aircraft as 24 Mirage F-1s, 24 Sukhoi Su-24s, 40 Su-22s, four Su-20s, seven Su-25s, 12 MiG-23s and four MiG-29s.

The civilian aircraft were listed as two Boeing 747s, two Boeing 737s, one Boeing 727, one Boeing 707, 15 Ilyushin Il-76s, two Mystere Falcon 20s, three Falcon 50s, one Lockheed Jetstar and six Airbuses, believed to be among the 14 Kuwait airliners the Iraqis seized when they invaded Kuwait last August.

Asian and Gulf diplomats in Tehran, speaking on condition of anonymity, cited reports from two unidentified Iranian government officials as saying Iran’s military had put air force insignia on at least 15 planes, located near the northwestern city of Tabriz.

An American reporter said he saw another three planes being repainted near a highway between Tehran and the holy city of Qom, 100 miles south of the capital.

″There were three planes that were clearly Iraqi in the process of being repainted. They appeared to have Iraqi markings,″ said Tom Squitieri of USA Today.

He said Iranian soldiers were giving the planes a coat of fresh paint, but he did not see any Iranian insignias being affixed to the jets.

One Arab diplomat identified the planes as some of the ″better MiGs and Sukhois.″ That indicated they were likely the top-line MiG-29 interceptors and long-range Su-24 fighter-bombers.

Iran recently took delivery of about 14 MiG-29s from the Soviet Union. It is also reported to have some MiG-21 interceptors and to have ordered an undisclosed number of Su-24s, Mig-23s and more MiG-29s.

These apparently will replace its aging, and largely grounded, fleet of U.S.-made F-14s and F-4s purchased before the 1979 Islamic revolution. The exodus from Iraq was one of the mysteries of the war.

Analysts generally agreed that Saddam Hussein ordered it to save his air force from withering allied attacks.

U.S. officials said after the war that Iraq lost 56 fixed-wing jets and five helicopters were destroyed, with another 140 believed rendered useless in attacks on underground shelters.

Saddam appears to have only succeeded in giving Iran a valuable bargaining chip in its demands for hefty reparations from their 1980-88 war.

The Iranians said they impounded the Iraqi jets and that the craft would be returned after hostilities ceased. But Iran’s polite relations with Baghdad during the war have nosedived in recent weeks, prompting speculation that Tehran would probably keep most of their aircraft.

The diplomats said they believed Iran had yet to decide what it would do with most of the planes.

Iran was waiting for a clearer idea about the structure of a post-war Iraq before committing itself to a plan about the planes, they said.

″If a postwar Iraq is willing to sign a comprehensive peace agreement, then Iran will return some planes,″ the Asian diplomat said.

″But if relations continue to be strained and Baghdad doesn’t play along, then Tehran will hold on to them.″

Asked how many planes could be returned, the diplomat said he believed the number would be negotiable.

″But a portion of the planes, maybe 11, will be Kuwaiti civilian airliners,″ he said.

At present, a Kurdish rebellion in north Iraq and a Shiite Muslim uprisings in the south have clouded Iraq’s political future.

A West European diplomat said the planes’ primary purpose is as a diplomatic lever.

But he said military jets ″could be the nucleus of a very nice air force.″

The diplomats said the Iraqi pilots were being well-treated.

The Asian source said the airmen were confined to ″certain areas″ but were not being held in jails. ″They appear to have limited freedom,″ he said.