Security strategy reviewed
The US opts for new military approaches in Iraq as it seeks to counter the insurgents' offensive tactics, writes Salah Hemeid
It is small, light, mobile and could be carried in a suitcase. But the SAM-7 anti-aircraft missile is as lethal as any other anti- aircraft missile in a war zone. Observers suggest that the Russian-designed rocket could be behind the downing of several US helicopters in Iraq over the last few months.
It would appear that the Iraqi insurgents, who are also in possession of machine guns that have proven deadly for US helicopters, are forcing the Americans to review the strategy behind their highly publicised security operation. This is aimed at stabilising Baghdad and paving the way for President George W Bush to find an exit strategy from Iraq.
Eleven US helicopters have crashed in Iraq since 20 January, prompting the US military to review flight operations and make plans to send more advanced types of combat helicopters to Iraq. The most recent crash occurred on Sunday in Mosul, north of Baghdad, when a US helicopter was hit by ground fire but landed safely.
Two British service members died on Sunday also, when their helicopters crashed in mid-air, north of Baghdad. The British army said the helicopters crashed after colliding over a rural area.
The crashes followed insurgent claims that they have received new stockpiles of anti-aircraft weapons. Islamic websites have also been airing videos showing US helicopters being hit in Iraq.
General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged that hostile forces have been more successful lately in shooting down US helicopters. He added that four US helicopters had been shot down by small arms fire in recent months, including a Black Hawk in which all 12 National Guard soldiers aboard were killed.
SAM-7, also know as Strela, is a portable, shoulder-fired, low- altitude surface-to-surface missile with a high explosive warhead and passive infrared homing guidance. It is similar to the US- manufactured Stinger which was effectively used by Afghani mujahideen in their war against the Soviet occupation.
The SAM-7 was the first generation of Soviet portable SAMs, its original version entered service in 1968. Although it is limited in range, speed and altitude, it can force enemy pilots to fly above its effective ceiling, raising the chances of their detection by radar, and their vulnerability to other air defence systems. The SAM-7 is a tail-chase missile system the effectiveness of which depends on its ability to lock onto the heat source of low- flying fixed, and rotary-wing, aircraft.
"When manned properly, it can be very effective and force the enemy to change tactics," said retired major-general Mohamed Kadri. Mohamed El-Sayed Said, an expert at the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, said that the repeated downing of American choppers in Iraq shows "a grave defect" in the US war strategy there.
He added that the recent attacks on American choppers showed more "resilience and efficiency" on the part of the Iraqi insurgents, in their fight against the more superiorly equipped American army.
"If the Americans cannot use their helicopters to pinpoint the pockets of resistance, their strategy to defeat the insurgency is doomed to failure. They [the insurgents] can deny them the air superiority which they need to make the security plan work," he said.
Said added that the insurgents may also be using other light anti-aircraft artillery, such as machine guns used in guerrilla warfare, to shoot down the choppers.
Insurgents have claimed that they used SAM-7s to shoot down American and British helicopters shortly after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In one case, they claimed they shot at a DHL- hired plane, severely damaging it while it was landing in the well fortified Baghdad International Airport.
During the Saddam era, the Iraqi army had stockpiles of the SAM-7 rockets in its arsenal and these are believed to have been taken by insurgents after the US army failed to control Saddam's army barracks immediately after the invasion.
Haroun Mohamed, an Iraqi journalist who follows Iraqi affairs from London, said the insurgents might have looted as many as 120 military camps and warehouses after the April 2003 fall of Saddam's regime.
He said that thousands of engineers in Saddam's defunct Military Industrialisation Organisation have joined the insurgency, and that they are believed to be maintaining and upgrading the abandoned weaponry.
"They are experienced and highly motivated," he said.
Insurgent leaders, talking to Al-Ahram Weekly in several Middle East capitals, said that a number of other advanced types such as SAM-16s and SAM-18s had also been recently bought.
In January, the London-based Pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat reported that the insurgents had received "a new generation of the Strela missiles". It quoted experts as saying that the insurgents are using the missiles in areas around Baghdad.
It is also widely believed that Al-Qaeda-linked groups, especially in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, are also in possession of the missile. In a video tape posted on the Internet in 2003, Al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, showed a stockpile of SAM-7 missiles in its Al-Battar training camp. Saudi officials acknowledged at the time that the group smuggled the rockets from neighbouring Yemen.
Some experts added that Iran might also have supplied Shia groups, such as the Mahdi Army, led by the radical cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr, with anti-aircraft missiles, including SAM-7, Strela ground-air missiles. The missiles are believed to be manufactured in Iran.
Meanwhile, US armed forces plan to send a squadron of V-22 Osprey helicopters to Iraq to join the fight against the insurgency. General James T Conway, commander of the Marine Corps, announced Saturday that the hybrid aircraft that can function as both a helicopter and airplane will be sent to Al-Assad air base in Iraq in September.
The Marine Corps believes that the aircraft will be able to avoid the surface-to-air attacks that have been downing US helicopters.