Pilot Warns of 'Great Danger' As ISIS Fire on Baghdad Flights

Baghdad flights
A member of the Iraqi Air Force looks out of a military helicopter at an aerial view of Baghdad, June 26, 2014. Picture taken June 26, 2014. REUTERS

A former Iraqi Airways captain has resigned due to the threat of Islamic State (ISIS) militants shooting at flights arriving and departing from Baghdad International Airport, Newsweek can reveal.

The pilot, who spoke on condition of anonymity and is now working for a rival airline, explained the reasons for his resignation in an email seen by Newsweek, which was sent to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) on December 31. In the subject line he warns that there is threat of "fatality due to landing in Baghdad", and in the email says that he resigned because flying to and from the airport "represents a great danger for passengers, aircrew and for the aircraft" as militants, who control territory to the west of the capital, shoot at low-flying aircraft.

He told the civil aviation authority that he had witnessed several attacks by militants on civilian flights from a number of airlines, including Iraqi Airways, "while approaching, departing and landing" at the airport.

The pilot claimed that in August last year, an Iraqi Airways plane's "middle fuel tank was hit" by militant fire and "it was lucky to be empty otherwise it would have exploded". The director of the airline denied the report to the New York Times, saying the story was a rumour spread by ISIS.

The Iraqi Airways pilot adds that two colleagues have also complained of incidents when their aircraft have been shot at and that Iraq's aviation authorities were downplaying incidents of militant fire to prevent airlines suspending their operations to the city.

However, the heightened security risk from militant fire has led to a number of airlines, such as Dubai-based Etihad Airways and Air Arabia, suspending flights to the airport.

Dutch chief of defence Tom Middenorp confirmed last week that Dutch F-16 fighter jets have been struck "once or twice" by fire when they were flying low over Iraq, in comments made to Dutch TV channel NOS. The Dutch Ministry of Defence confirmed there was a shooting incident over Iraqi territory but emphasised that the pilot landed safely at a Jordanian airbase.

Iraq expert and director of research at independent research consultancy Integrity, Sajad Jiyad, said that flights approaching or leaving Baghdad airport mostly avoid the areas controlled by ISIS by flying in from the south but, due to the US-led coalition's deployment of aircraft, helicopters and drones to the region, flight patterns of some commercial aircrafts are altered at the last minute and are forced to travel near areas where militants are active.

"If someone is in town, for example [John] Kerry, they obviously change the flight patterns, or because the coalition has helicopters, jets or drones in the sky," says Jiyad.

"Every now and then, the flight pattern changes and sometimes a plane is forced to come in over the side next to Abu Ghraib, next to [ISIS-controlled] Anbar province. When [a plane] is in its landing phase, it's relatively easy to hit if you know where to be at the right time."

Michael Pregent, adjunct lecturer at the College of International Security Affairs at the National Defense University, believes that the militants situated to the west of Baghdad take the opportunity to fire on the aircraft to show their presence, demonstrate their capabilities and to instill fear. He adds that gunfire is likely emanating from Sunni neighbourhoods where the presence of Iraqi security forces is minimal.

"Right outside of the airport are Sunni neighbourhoods that right now are probably not being secured by Iraqi-Shia security forces. The majority of the area around the complex are Sunni areas. It would not surprise me that they are able to take pot-shots at the airfield from there."

The pilot's warning and resignation came before Flydubai Flight 215, which was carrying 154 passengers, was hit by small arms fire while landing at Iraq's main airport last month, injuring a six-year-old girl, according to Iraqi officials.

There were no immediate claims of responsibility for the shots fired at Flydubai flight 215 and the Iraqi transportation minister, Baqir Jabr Al Zubaidi, brushed off the incident as "an accident" and "a simple scratch to a little girl" caused by celebratory gunfire from a nearby wedding.

David Learmount, aviation expert and operations and safety editor of Flightglobal, said that while the ICAO has taken on the role of "assembling global intelligence on risk zones" following the downing of MH17 in eastern Ukraine, it can only pass on intelligence of shooting incidents to the relevant airlines, leaving the decision - to fly in and out of areas near to militant activity - to the airlines themselves.

"That is the only thing that ICAO can do, pass on the information. Any airline that accepts to operate in Baghdad knows that there is a risk. It's up to the airlines," he said.

An ICAO spokesman confirmed that "It is the responsibility of each ICAO member state to make these assessments of its airspace" and to "distribute that risk information to other states and airlines". The representative added that a proposal is on the table for the ICAO to host a "centralised portal where multiple sources" can share "risk information and assessments" on conflict zones.

Last year, ISIS captured large swathes of territory in western Iraq, such as the city of Fallujah and parts of the city of Ramadi, advancing to within miles of the Iraqi capital. However, Newsweek was unable to independently verify the pilot's claims that ISIS militants were responsible for the shooting. Sunni insurgents also operate in the regions west of Baghdad, such as Abu Ghraib.

Iraqi Airways was unavailable for comment when contacted. G4S, who manage the security for Baghdad airport, was not immediately available for comment.