Now the site, 375 km southeast of Baghdad and once Saddam Hussein's centre of air operations against Iran during the 1980-1988 war - is home to Air Force Squadron 23 and its three C-130 Hercules transport planes.

The US-donated planes are the backbone of Iraq's new air force, which also includes a dozen light reconaissance planes and another dozen helicopters spread across the country. Officials are vague on numbers for security reasons.

Currently, 109 Iraqi students - all air force veterans with years of experience - are learning how to maintain and fly the Hercules fleet. The youngest trainee is 30. Others appear twice that age.

Fleet destroyed

Gone are the days of Saddam's air fleet of 500 warplanes, which included Russian Mig 21 and Mig 25 fighters, Sukhoi fighter-bombers and French Mirage interceptors.

Most of Saddam's planes were flown to Iran during the 1991 Gulf War to prevent them from being destroyed in US bombing raids.

The US has donated three C-130
Hercules planes
 

Those aircraft were not returned by the time Iraq's next conflict  began, and any valuable surviving planes were buried in the desert.

Just days after the US-led invasion began in March 2003, "we removed the engines and the wings of six Mig 25s and buried them in the desert," said an Iraqi air force veteran, now a captain in the new force.

"It was crazy, but nobody dared contradict Saddam. He thought the war would last just a few months."

Training

Facing death threats and attacks on their families by anti-government fighters, the Iraqi officers and airmen agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity.

With no aircraft left, the main asset available was the expertise of these veterans.

In January 2005, the three Hercules arrived and US and British officials began offering training and advice to help rebuild the new air force. 

The crew have faced threats and
attacks by fighters

The first class of Hercules operators took lessons in Jordan in late 2004 before starting courses at Ali base in January. They are expected to complete their training in January 2006.

A second group also went to Jordan and are expected to finish in May or June 2006.

"Everyone here loves his country and would be happy to see his country stand proudly again," said one Iraqi warrant officer, a gray-haired veteran with 18 years' experience.

Maintenance

The C-130 has a crew of five - a pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer, navigator and a loadmaster.

The three planes need at least 53 ground personnel to make sure they are properly maintained - everything from engine upkeep to checking for cracks in the fuselage to making sure the straps that hold the cargo are not frayed.

The ground crew being trained got their experience maintaining Russian-made transport planes from Saddam's air force.

One Iraqi warrant officer with 23 years' experience gazed wistfully at a private Ilyushin Il-76 plane taxying down the Ali base's runway, as he took a break from checking hydraulics on the Hercules. 

To be successful "they're going to have to get some young people in"

US Air Force Major Jed McCray

"It's my love," he sighed, then launched into a description of the Russian plane, which carries three times the amount of cargo of a Hercules. "And it has only one type of hydraulic fluid, not three," he said.

New blood needed

The officer said he was aboard one of the 20 Il-76s that Saddam ordered flown to neighbouring Iran in 1991.

The Iranians held him and the other flight crews for a month, then sent them back, refusing to return the planes, he said.

The US instructors want the trainees to eventually teach what they learned to a new crop of Iraqi airmen and pilots.

"We're trying to get them to train people," said US Air Force Major Jed McCray, head of the maintenance training programme. "Come next summer we plan to be gone and have them sustain themselves."

But in order to be ultimately successful, "they're going to have to get some young people in," McCray said.