BAGHDAD — Iraq's decision to purchase 18 F-16 fighter jets will provide a "very robust capability" where today there is none and will allow the country's military to protect its airspace, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq said Thursday.
But an Iraqi parliamentarian who sits on the defense oversight committee said the size of the order was so small as to be "ridiculous." Top aides to Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki said a follow-up order for the "Fighting Falcon," which Lockheed Martin manufactures at Fort Worth, Texas, is a near-certainty.
The deal, worth $3 billion, was announced this week after Iraq, its treasury flush thanks to high oil prices, made a $1.4 billion down payment.
Ali Musawi, a spokesman for Maliki, said the 18 planes were "a first installment, and hopefully there will be another 18 to make a total of 36."
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While the fighters "will enhance" Iraq's abilities to protect its airspace, land and waters, "They will not, by themselves, be enough, because our neighboring countries have a large number of fighter planes," Musawi told McClatchy, referring to Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria. "So looking to Iraq's position in the region, having those planes is not much, but it is a beginning."
Mudher Khidr Nasir, a member of parliament's Security and Defense Committee, said the committee hadn't received official notification of the contract, but added: "I find the number 18 ridiculous."
The chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq said in the context of the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of this year, Iraq had taken a major step forward.
"The F-16 is a good example of them taking a step to reinforce their sovereignty, increase their self-reliance and deal with one of those security gaps that they still have," Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan said.
Concerns about Iraq's lack of air defense capabilities had been one reason some have advocated that the United State leave substantial numbers of troops in Iraq after the Dec. 31 pullout deadline.
But Buchanan said Iraq had made a number of advances toward regaining full sovereignty over its airspace after eight years in which the United States exercised control.
Next month, Iraqi air traffic controllers will assume responsibility for flights below 15,000 feet in the central part of the country, the only part of Iraqi airspace where the U.S. remains in control. Iraq's air defense radars and long-range radar systems will be fully functional by the middle of next year. And the Iraqi military now has a modern air-operations center that controls military aircraft throughout the country and is able to sound a warning if the borders are breached.
What Iraq has lacked "is the ability to defend their airspace," Buchanan said. The F-16s will provide help provide that.
"It gives them a very robust capability right now, where they currently have none." He said that one squadron of F-16s could cover the entire country. He acknowledged that this was likely to be a first installment. "Could you do more with 36 than 18? The answer would be yes, he said.
One additional element still to be set up is ground-based air defense — missiles and guns — which will be deployed to key locations that the Iraqi authorities say must be defended. This is still under discussion with U.S. experts, Buchanan said.
With just 90 days until the deadline for full withdrawal, the U.S. troop presence now stands at 44,000, down from 92,000 at the start of the year. The military has redeployed 1.5 million pieces of equipment, with 800,000 left to go. American forces are still on 34 bases, down from 505 in 2008, Buchanan said.
It's still unclear whether any U.S. troops will stay on after Dec. 31 as trainers and advisers. Top Iraqi politicians are at loggerheads over whom to appoint to head the Defense and Interior ministries, a decision that's become inextricably linked to Iraq's request for the American advisers and trainers.
Tahseen al Shaikhli, a government spokesman, said this week that Iraq and the United States had agreed in principle to have some 3,000 American trainers remain, but he acknowledged that an agreement to provide them immunity from Iraqi prosecution hadn't been concluded.
In July, Shaikhli had said Iraq was hoping to have some 13,000 U.S. advisers and trainers remain in the country after Dec. 31.
Buchanan said the F-16 deal had been due to be completed in January but that Iraq had postponed it for budgetary and political reasons, including concerns that the country didn't have enough money to provide for staples for Iraqis receiving food rations.
But with oil at more than $100 a barrel for much of the year, the government, which draws 90 percent of its income from oil sales, found itself with an unexpected windfall of at least $14 billion, Buchanan said.
"Based on that, they decided to go back and see how they were prioritizing spending their money," he said. Recognizing that they still needed combat aircraft, "they allocated money to it."
(Issa is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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