BAGHDAD (Reuters) --- Iraq's new air force will be able to strike targets for the first time next year when it gets aircraft from the United States, the U.S. commander in charge of rebuilding the force said on Wednesday.
Brigadier-General Robert Allardice also said it was unlikely Iraq would ever be able retrieve any of scores of fighter jets flown to Iran in 1991 to avoid destruction.
Iraq's air force has dramatically increased the number of sorties it flies each week, up to about 290 last week from an average of 30 a week in January, Allardice said.
Its fleet of about 60 fixed wing aircraft and helicopters fly transport and reconnaissance missions but the air force has not flown any significant combat missions since the U.S. military began helping to rebuild the shattered force in 2004.
'If you're talking the ability to deliver a kinetic weapon from a fixed-wing air platform, they'll have some small capability next year,' Allardice told Reuters in an interview.
He would not give any more details other than to say the aircraft would come from the United States.
'If you're talking jet aircraft to provide for their air defence, there's a number of years between now and then,' Allardice said, adding that Iraq's 18 Russian-made MI-17 helicopters had some attack capabilities, including rockets.
Iraq's air force once boasted as many as 750 mainly Soviet- and French-built fighters, bombers and armed trainer aircraft, according to security information Web site globalsecurity.org, reputedly making it the sixth biggest in the world.
About half that fleet was flown to Iran to avoid destruction before the 1991 Gulf War. What remained was destroyed during the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The fleet is now made up mainly of C-130 Hercules transport planes, a variety of small fixed-wing reconnaissance planes, the MI-17 helicopters and 16 refitted Vietnam-era Huey helicopters.
Iraq's air force commander Lieutenant-General Kamal al-Barzanji said in August he still hoped Iran would return some of those Iraqi planes but Allardice said that was unlikely and that the planes were probably in poor condition.
'My sense is that that's not going to happen,' he said. 'I would imagine that they wouldn't be worth much.'
With no offensive capability yet, Iraq's air force relies on U.S. attack helicopters and fighters to support ground troops.
Addressing that imbalance is seen as an important part of the counter-insurgency battle that will eventually allow U.S. forces to hand over security responsibility to Iraqis, in turn allowing U.S. forces to leave Iraq.
Violence has fallen to its lowest levels in almost two years after a 'surge' of 30,000 extra U.S. troops became fully deployed in mid-June and with the growing use of neighbourhood police units organised by mainly Sunni Arab tribal sheikhs.
Personnel numbers are expected to increase dramatically as Iraq's air force fleet grows.
The air force was made up of about 1,000 personnel, including some 100 pilots, early this year. Pilot numbers have almost doubled since then, although Allardice said he doubted a 2007 target of 2,900 personnel overall would be met.
'Our goal is 6,000 by the end of next year,' he said.
A new programme for young aviators began this year. Pilots from Saddam's era still form the backbone of the air force.
Allardice said another 36 'former pilots' had been approved this week to rejoin the air force. Many of those returning officers and pilots had an average age of 42 or 43, he said.
'We bring old guys back to fight this counter-insurgency now and to carry the weight for the next few years but the future is the next generation,' Allardice said.
By Paul Tait
Editing by Sophie Walker