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US search teams find buried Iraqi jets
( 2003-08-01 15:08) (Agencies)

Some of Iraqi's missing air force has turned up down below. Search teams, some hunting for Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction, found dozens of fighter jets from Iraq's air force buried beneath the sands, US officials say.

At least one Cold War-era MiG-25 interceptor was found when searchers saw the tops of its twin tail fins poking up from the sands, said one Pentagon official familiar with the hunt. He said search teams have found several MiG-25s and Su-25 ground attack jets buried at al-Taqqadum air field west of Baghdad.

Iraq's air squadrons were a no-show during the war, and US military officials supposed their pilots stayed grounded because they believed they were overmatched by American and British air power.

Various officials differed in opinion as to whether the buried aircraft could ever fly again. Many of the planes were buried intact with minimal efforts to protect them from the sand.

Rep. Porter Goss, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said the discovery pointed to how far Iraqi forces went to conceal their activities. The Florida Republican was briefed on the discovery during his recent trip to Iraq.

"Our guys have found 30-something brand new aircraft buried in the sand to deny us access to them," Goss said. "These are craft we didn't know about."

He said the planes were not considered weapons of mass destruction for which coalition troops have been searching for months, "but they are weapons (Iraq) tried to hide."

Prewar intelligence estimates from earlier this year said Saddam Hussein's regime had about 300 combat aircraft, all of them survivors of the Gulf War. Most were aging Soviet-era MiGs, Sukhois and older French Mirage fighters. The best are MiG-29 Fulcrums, one of the most advanced fighters produced in the Soviet era.

Allied warplanes bombed several planes on the ground, and US Air Force officials say no Iraqi planes were detected flying a combat mission during the war.

Australian troops, who on April 16 captured the Al Asad Airfield, 112 miles northwest of Baghdad, found scores of fighter aircraft, mostly Soviet-era MiGs but also three advanced MiG-25 Foxbats, the fastest combat aircraft today. Helicopters, radar systems and millions of pounds of explosives also were found.

The MiGs had escaped detection during the coalition bombing campaign. Some were buried or hidden under trees or covered with camouflage sheets. Aircraft destroyed in prior wars were littered across the airfield to make it more difficult for bombers to choose their targets.

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