Iraqi F-16 pilots trained in the U.S. have become increasingly effective in the battle for Mosul, but the future of the training program is in doubt as President Donald Trump prepares to issue another executive order on immigration.
F-16s flown by Iraqis are "about the highest-end capability that you can get in this area," and the airstrikes conducted by them are "certainly something they've brought to bear to great effect in the operations over Mosul," Air Force Col. John Dorrian, a spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, said in a briefing from Baghdad to the Pentagon on Wednesday.
Iraqi F-16s on Friday carried out the first airstrikes in Syria by Iraqi forces against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria targets in response to car bombings in Baghdad, according to a statement from the Iraqi government.
"Our heroic Air Force pilots carried out those strikes in response to the terrorists, and they were successfully executed," Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said.
The missions were flown by Iraqi pilots who trained in Arizona on F-16 Fighting Falcons bought by their government from the U.S. with the 162nd Fighter Wing of the Air National Guard at the Wing's 74-acre site next to Tucson International Airport.
While they train, the Iraqis live in small apartments in the city.
The 162nd Fighter Wing has trained F-16 pilots for 28 nations, but continuation of the program for the Iraqis was thrown into doubt when Trump last month issued an executive order to protect the nation against terrorists, including a travel ban on seven predominantly Muslim countries -- Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Yemen, Iran, Somalia and Libya.
In response, Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari issued a statement saying the travel ban on Iraqis made no sense and threatened military cooperation while Iraq is giving the "blood of its sons" in the mutual fight against ISIS.
Sens. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and member of SASC, also warned of the potential impact of the travel ban on military cooperation. In a joint statement, they singled out the Iraqis training with the 162nd Fighter Wing.
"Our most important allies in the fight against ISIL [another acronym for ISIS] are the vast majority of Muslims who reject its apocalyptic ideology of hatred," McCain and Graham said. "This executive order sends a signal, intended or not, that America does not want Muslims coming into our country."
The initial executive order on immigration led to mass confusion at airports on its implementation and was stayed in the courts, but Trump has said he will issue another executive order next week to get around the legal issues.
At the time of the issuance of the initial executive order, Defense Department and Air Force officials said they might seek exemptions for the Iraqi pilots or special visas to allow them to continue training, but the issue became moot when the courts blocked the order.
At a briefing for defense reporters at the Pentagon earlier this week, Col. Pat Ryder, an Air Force spokesman, declined to speculate on the potential impact of the next executive order on the Iraqi pilot training program, but stressed that the program has been successful.
"We're in contact with DoD and the State Department to look at any type of foreign military travel to the States, but I'm not going to speculate on an impact," Ryder said. "The Iraqi air force and Iraqi military -- they're critical partners in the fight against ISIS -- so I would anticipate that we would continue to work hard to ensure that they're able to get the training they need."
Thus far, the Iraqi pilots have not been impeded in "their ability to get where they need to go," Ryder said. He said it was his understanding that since the travel ban was blocked by the courts, "it didn't affect training at this point."
In his briefing Wednesday, Dorrian said that Iraqi pilots are currently flying 14 F-16s on missions against ISIS. The F-16s were part of a $3.86 billion buy order from Iraq in 2011 for 36 Lockheed Martin F-16s.
Dorrian said, "I was speaking with one of our commanders that works closely with the Iraqi air force and the advisers who help them conduct their operations, and what I'm hearing is that they're very capable of hitting the targets that they intend to hit."
"They are targeting with precision inside Mosul and doing a very good job," often using Iraqi Joint Terminal Attack Controllers on the ground to guide the strikes, Dorrian said.
To date, there has been one casualty in the Iraqi pilot training program. In June 2015, Iraqi Brig. Gen. Rafid Mohammed Hasan was killed in the crash of his F-16 about 120 miles southeast of Tucson near the Mexican border.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.