BAGHDAD Dec. 6, 2010 -- A brief paragraph in the mountain of Wikileaks documents shed a sliver of light on what officials claim is a viscious and coldly efficient Iranian campaign of revenge on Iraqi air force pilots who bombed Iran during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.
"Many former Iraqi fighter pilots who flew sorties against Iran during the Iran-Iraq war were now on Iran's hit list (NOTE: According to [Name removed], Iran had already assassinated 180 Iraqi pilots. END NOTE)," the Dec. 14, 2009 confidential U.S. cable stated.
The systematic elimination of Iraqi air force pilots by Iran was a little noticed vendetta amid the crossfire of ethnic fighting and urban combat that convulsed Iraq in the years after the U.S. invasion toppled Saddam Hussein's regime.
Iran used the chaos in the aftermath of the invasion to settle scores from the Iran-Iraq war, an eight-year slug fest from 1980 to 1988 in which an estimated 500,000 Iranians and Iraqis died. The war was largely a bloody standoff that resembled World War I at times with trench warfare, poison gas, human wave and bayonet attacks.
Iran, however, has taken a special vengeance on the pilots of the Iraqi air force and the lawlessness that followed the collapse of Saddam's regime gave Iran its opportunity.
In addition to the 182 pilots who have been hunted down and killed by Iranian agents, the assassination campaign prompted another 800 Iraqi pilots to flee the country, according to statistics released by the Iraqi Defense Ministry.
The targeting of air force pilots began in Baghdad's largely Shiite neighborhood of Karradah and reached its peak in the holy month of Ramadan in 2005 when 36 pilots were gunned down in that neighborhood.
Residents of Karradah refer to that killing season as the Black Ramadan.
The Iranian fury was on display in the death of former pilot Sayyid Hussien, a Shiite who felt that he was relatively safe running a hardware store in the Sunni neighborhood of Ghazaliyah. He was wrong. Shiite militia dressed all in black and wearing masks shot him dead in a daylight hit, emptying an entire magazine of 30 bullets into Hussien's head.
During Hussien's funeral, his distraught mother Um Sayyid Hussien cried, "May Allah curse Iran. They took my son."
Iran's Secret Revenge on Iraqi Pilots
A pilot who has remained in Iraq told ABC News, "I took part in the Iraq-Iran war. We had many missions hitting targets inside Iran. It was war time."
The pilot asked that his name be withheld out of concern for his safety and for his family's safety.
"I had many of my fellow pilots get killed and the killer is not known, never been captured," he said. "I do not know why they are killing us. Just because we had to follow orders during war time?"
By the time of the U.S. invasion in 2003, the Iraqi air force was already crippled. Its planes were prevented from taking off by constant patrols of U.S. fighter jets. In an attempt to save his jets from being bombed, Saddam buried many of them in the desert.
"We felt like we had a broken wing," the pilot said. "We could not do a thing to defend or to show the ... pride we once had."
Then came the killing of pilots and the former flyer said he had to repeatedly change his residence, gave up his home in the Sunni area of Dora and now lives only in what he calls an undisclosed location.
Iranian officials in Baghdad and Washington did not respond to repeated calls for response to the allegations.
In a stark recogniton of the peril that Iraq's former fighter pilots face, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has offered the pilots a safe haven in the Kurdish cities of Irbil and Sulimaniyah. That is ironic because before the U.S. invasion, American pilots patrolled the area to make sure Iraqi pilots didn't venture into the Kurdish region.