(Image: Pedmore; revisiting the abandoned airfields of Iraq)
For quarter of a century under the brutal dictator Saddam Hussein, Iraq became a hotbed of military activity that saw the establishing of the Middle East’s largest army and the use of chemical weapons against Iranian forces and Kurdish separatists alike. Vast military airfields were constructed across the country – some of them new, others rebuilt – which would become key targets when Iraqi forces invaded neighbouring Kuwait in 1990, threatening the oil-rich Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
As the West intervened, Operation Desert Storm saw allied warplanes tasked to destroy Saddam’s military arsenal, putting heavily defended airfields and other strategic targets firmly out of commission. Some of these military airbases have been abandoned ever since, while others again saw action during the US-led invasion of 2003. This article explores a number of abandoned airfields across Iraq, from the bombed-out relics of the First Gulf War to those crippled in more recent times.
Jalibah Southeast Air Base
Along the banks of the Euphrates River, near the ancient city of Ur, sits the remains of Jalibah Southeast Air Base. A few strips of concrete slowly being reclaimed by the burning desert sand, this desolate base has been the scene of several decisive military encounters over the years.
Most dramatically, this came during the First Gulf War of 1991. Jalibah was a f ocal point for Saddam’s attack on Kuwait, and became a prime coalition target. For a brief period bombs rained heavily down on the base, before US ground forces captured it in a spectacularly bloody battle that saw multiple aircraft destroyed and Iraqi troops routed and killed in large numbers. In the aftermath of the war, engineers decommissioned the base before the US Army exited to stop Saddam from using it again.
Not that this marked the end of Jalibah Southeast Air Base. In 2003, it was overrun by Allied forces again during Operation Iraqi Freedom. For a brief period, the abandoned Iraqi airfield returned to life, only to be deserted once again.
Ubaydah Bin Al Jarrah Air Base
(Images: Google Earth; Bing Maps; abandoned Iraqi airfield Ubaydah Bin Al Jarrah)
In the 1970s, the ruling Baath party of Saddam Hussein went through a period of intense paranoia. Scarred by the Israeli-Arab wars, the party began construction of impregnable ‘super bases’ across the nation. Ostensibly meant for defence, each base contained an underground lair of hangars and operations centres so hardened it could withstand a direct hit by a tactical nuclear bomb.
Yet these bases were also symbols of aggression. Ubaydah Bin Al Jarrah was no exception. In 1991, it was targeted by the RAF thanks to its involvement in the invasion of Kuwait. The British bombed the hell out of the base, yet it was so well-constructed that repairing it proved relatively straightforward.
So it was that the base played a role in the second Gulf War, too. A key target, it was eventually overrun by US marines who abandoned it at the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Today, it appears damaged and possibly abandoned. But possibly not. In 2015 the Iraqi Defence Minister reportedly visited the site to unveil a new drone, suggesting it remains in use to this day.
Ar Rumaylah Southwest Air Base
(Images: Bing Maps; abandoned Iraqi airfield Ar Rumaylah Southwest Air Base)
Only a short hop from the Kuwaiti border, Ar Rumaylah Southwest Air Base was once one of Saddam’s most important military airfields. A massive super base that sprawled over a vast area, it came equipped with a 10,000ft runway and a dozen specially-hardened aircraft hangers that could repel most types of bombs. Unsurprisingly, it became a key battleground in the 1991 Gulf War.
As Saddam’s troops overran Kuwait, the coalition launched a large-scale air campaign against Iraqi targets. In January 1991 Ar Rumaylah came in for heavy bombing as the coalition sought to keep the Iraqi air force firmly on the ground. Less than a month later, ground troops captured it in a massive surge. It was during an attack on Rumaylah that Panavia Tornado GR1 ZD791, crewed by John Peters and John Nichol, was shot down by a surface to air missile while flying at high speed around 50 feet above the desert. The pilot and navigator ejected and, having been paraded on Iraqi television, were released along with other prisoners of war at the end of the conflict.
Like Jalibah, the abandoned airbase was decommissioned following the ceasefire. Unlike Jalibah, however, it never returned to action. Today, most of Ar Rumaylah’s bombed-out buildings appear to have been demolished, while the cratered runway and taxiways have been slowly consumed by the desert and are disappearing into the sand.
Tallil Air Base
Tallil Air Base stands on one of the most-historically significant sites on Earth. Within its vast 22km security perimeter lies part of the ancient city of Ur, including its fabled Great Ziggurat. Not that this did the site any great favours when war came. In 1991 it was heavily bombed and the city of Ur damaged by explosions and small arms fire.
However, Tallil’s history doesn’t end there. In 2003, the abandoned Iraqi airfield was occupied by the US Army, rechristened Camp Adder, and transformed into one of the most-significant bases in the whole of Iraq. Thousands upon thousands of troops were stationed there until 2011, enough to support a local McDonald’s branch, a Taco Bell and a commercial internet provider. Australian and Romanian troops were also stationed there, the latter defiantly calling the place Camp Dracula prior to their 2009 exit.
It wasn’t until 2011 that US troops finally pulled out of Tallil Air Base, which had once been home to Soviet-built fighters and helicopter gunships, and handed it back over to Iraq. At one point, there were plans afoot to turn it into a civilian airport. However, the ISIS insurgency has pushed these plans onto the back-burner and as far as we can tell, the base currently stands empty.
Kut Al Hayy Air Base
(Image: Bing Maps; this abandoned Iraqi airfield has almost completely disappeared into the desert)
(Images: Bing Maps; Google Earth; the abandoned Kut Al Hayy Air Base)
One of the first things you notice when reading the history of Kut Al Hayy Air Base is it’s anglicized name. In 2003, US Marines took over the then-abandoned Iraqi airfield and rechristened it as the oddly suggestive-sounding ‘Camp Chesty.’ Bizarre nomenclature aside, the base has a significant history. Like many of Saddam’s massive airfields, Kut Al Hayy was built in the mid 1980s by Yugoslavian contractors. Later, during the US occupation, it was one of the largest supply depots in the whole of Iraq, ferrying equipment to soldiers on the front line.
Like other bases on this list, Kut Al Hayy had previously seen action in the First Gulf War of 1991. Bombed during Operation Desert Storm, it was abandoned by Iraqi troops who fled before the advancing coalition army. Although its resurrection was impressive, it was also brief. In 2006, engineers set to work dismantling the runways and making the whole base unusable. Today, it’s little more than a ruin in the desert, a broken down reminder of the shaky occupation days, before the whole country began to utterly collapse.
H-3 Air Base
(Images: Bing Maps; abandoned Iraqi airfield H-3 Air Base)
(Image: Google Earth; derelict Soviet-built jets still stand on the abandoned Iraqi airfield)
One of a cluster of airbases near the Jordanian border, H-3 was another of Iraq’s infamous ‘super bases’. It was also far-scarier than most on this list. During the 1980s and 1990s, chemical weapons were stored there, ready to unleash toxic death on any enemies of Saddam. When the coalition attacked Iraq during Operation Desert Storm, it was one of the bases from where Scud missiles were hurled into Israel, striking Tel Aviv.
As a result, H-3 became a major target, both in 1991 and again in 2003. Prior to the second invasion of Iraq, intense bombing raids involving some 100 US and UK planes were conducted, on the off-chance that Saddam might be stockpiling chemical weapons there that could be used on American or British troops. In March 2003, it was finally overthrown. Iraqi forces were driven out and H-3 converted into a forward special operations base.
It’s understood that H-3 Air Base now lies abandoned, though its buildings remain largely intact and massive runway operational, albeit obstructed by a series of obstacles. Taxiways, meanwhile, are being steadily reclaimed by the desert and the old hulks of Russian-built warplanes lie derelict across the abandoned Iraqi airfield.
Al-Taji Airfield (Camp Cooke)
The history of Al-Taji (later renamed Camp Cooke after being occupied by American troops) is a volatile one, to say the least. In the 1990s, it was a major centre for producing chemical weapons designed to be mounted on missiles. It was also targeted beyond the 1991 and 2003 conflicts. In 1998 Al-Taji Airfield was bombed as part of Operation Desert Fox – a four day campaign designed to disable Saddam’s WMD program.
As with many other Iraqi bases, Al-Taji fell in 2003 to American troops. Repurposed into a US base, it soon became one of the biggest in the country. As a result, things sometimes got scary. Between 2004 and 2011 the facility was attacked five separate times, with one assault involving over 70 separate rockets pounding its buildings. Another attack left behind something in the region of 40 casualties.
After the United States exited Iraq, the base fell into disuse. Some buildings were looted, some simply left to decay under a layer of thick dust. Today, however, it is the centre of yet another US incursion into the Middle East. With ISIS’s frontlines located less than 50km from the previously-abandoned Iraqi airfield, it has once again been pressed into action.
The oldest base on our list, RAF Habbaniya on the banks of the Euphrates has been around since 1936, when Iraq was still governed by Britain. Abandoned by the British during the 1958 revolution, it was put to use by the newly-independent Iraqi state for its own ends (though the Habbaniya Association maintains of those buried in the small British cemetery at the site).
Unfortunately, those ends were far from noble. Following Saddam’s rise to power, the base was converted into a factory for producing mustard gas. At its height, the factory was spewing out around 80 tonnes of the deadly material per year. Mustard is the gas that Saddam used when he massacred the Kurds. It is also the gas he dropped on Iran during the 1980s Iran-Iraq War. In 2014, Time magazine reported that Iranian mustard gas casualties may have reached 90,000 (but since the gas can affect people decades after exposure, the true tally is not yet known).
As a result, the former RAF Habbaniya has one of the most-sombre histories of all of Iraq’s abandoned airfields and military bases. Technically, however, it’s no longer call it ‘abandoned’. Like Al-Taji, above, the base is now being used in yet another conflict in Iraq’s inhospitable deserts: the war against ISIS.