BELGRADE, Serbia - BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Jet fighters sent by Saddam Hussein for maintenance 20 years ago have been found in Serbia, but they will be of little use in rebuilding Iraq's Air Force because most are in pieces, Serbian officials said Monday.
The Iraqi Defense ministry says it discovered during a search of its files that the 19 planes — Soviet-built MiG-21s and MiG-23s — were sent in 1989 to what was then Yugoslavia, of which Serbia was a part. They got stuck there because of an embargo imposed in 1990 against Iraq following its invasion of Kuwait.
Iraqi officials say the planes could be critical in helping the country take responsibility for its own defense as most American forces prepare to leave over the next two years.
"We do need these fighters, especially the MiG-23s, because it is an active and advanced jet," Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Mohammed al-Askari told The Associated Press on Sunday.
Al-Askari said an Iraqi delegation was heading to Belgrade, the Serbian capital, to negotiate the return of the jets.
But Serbian officials say that, if Iraq plans to use them to rebuild its Air Force, their hopes will be dashed: Most of the planes, they said Friday, are cannibalized, abandoned and useless.
Only two or three of the jets are still "in one piece" — including one that was until recently stored in Belgrade's aircraft museum — the officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss what they said was a military secret.
The Serbian Defense Ministry had no comment about the jets, but only said an Iraqi military delegation was in Belgrade last week to sign a $100-million weapons deal. It did not say whether the return of the MiGs is a part of that deal, which is believed to include small arms and ammunition for the Iraqi army.
Iraqi officials said they found the planes in the process of trying to trace what Saddam, the former dictator, did with the country's military assets. The 19 planes, all Soviet-built, were sent in 1989 to a Yugoslav maintenance plant in Zagreb, in what is now Croatia, but never got the overhauls they needed.
In 1991, when the Croatian war for independence broke out, the jets were transported to Serbia in parts. And there they remained.
Lt. Col. Gary Kolb, a spokesman for the Multi-National Transition and Security Command-Iraq, said that, in any event, the MiGs would do little to boost the capability of the Air Force.
"The Iraqis would still have to train up pilots for the aircraft and establish a logistics system to maintain them," Kolb said.
The U.S. would probably be unable to help with parts and maintenance, because the MiGs were designed by the former Soviet Union. Iraq has made a request to purchase F-16 fighter jets from the U.S. but that has not yet been approved.
The Iraqi Air Force was once considered the best in the Arab world. Founded in 1931, it battled the British in 1941 and Israel in 1948 and 1967.
Saddam invested a huge portion of the country's oil wealth in the Air Force, which was used to some effect during the 1980-88 war with Iran. At its zenith in the late 1980s, its inventory included nearly 750 combat aircraft, including Soviet MiGs and Sukhois and French Mirage fighters.
The Iraqi air force virtually ceased to exit in 1991: Most of its planes were flown to Iran to keep them from being shot down in the Gulf War. After the war, extensive no-fly zones were imposed over Iraq by the U.S., Britain and France.
Its remnants were officially disbanded by the Americans in 2003, after U.S. troops took control of Baghdad, ending Saddam's regime.
U.S. officials are concerned about Iraq's ability a set up and train a new force by the time most American troops withdraw at the end of 2011.
Iraq's financial crisis, caused by plummeting oil revenues, has slowed the process.
The Air Force has no jet fighters to defend against possible incursions by countries such as Turkey and Israel. Iraqi pilots are flying helicopters and smaller aircraft, such as Cessnas, which are primarily used for border surveillance and intelligence gathering.
Iraqi military officials have also shown interest in the purchase of small piston-engined training aircraft being developed in Serbia.
Associated Press writers Mazin Yahya and Chelsea J. Carter in Baghdad and Slobodan Lekic in Brussels contributed to this report.