* Iraq wants to strengthen weak air force
* Iraq mulls keeping some U.S. troops after deadline
(Adds detail, background on agreement)
By Waleed Ibrahim
BAGHDAD, July 30 Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri
al-Maliki said on Saturday his government would buy 36 F-16
fighters from the United States, doubling the number it had
initially planned to purchase to strengthen its weak air
The announcement of the deal came as Iraq and the U.S.
government discuss whether to keep some U.S. troops or military
trainers in the OPEC country after the planned withdrawal of the
last American soldiers at the end of the year.
"A delegation from the Iraqi Air Force along with advisers
will travel to revive the contract to include a larger number
than the contract had agreed before... We will make it 36
instead of 18," Maliki told reporters.
"We have to provide Iraq with airplanes to safeguard its
sovereignty," he said.
Iraq's air force is one of the weakest branches of its armed
forces, which are still battling insurgents and militias more
than eight years after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Sunni
dictator Saddam Hussein.
The country still relies on U.S. forces for air support for
its troops. The United States formally ended combat missions in
Iraq last year and American soldiers are now mainly advising and
assisting the Iraqi military.
Iraq this year delayed the initial purchase of the F-16s
from Lockheed Martin after putting $900 million of
allocated funds into its national food programme to ease
pressure from Iraqis protesting against poor basic services.
Maliki's government is discussing whether to ask for
civilian contractors rather than keep U.S. troops on the ground
after the withdrawal deadline, according to Iraqi sources.
Keeping American soldiers on Iraqi soil is a sensitive issue for
the fragile power-sharing coalition.
Violence in Iraq has eased since the bloody days of
sectarian conflict in 2006-2007, but Sunni Islamist insurgents
and Shi'ite militias still carry out almost daily attacks and
Some of Iraq's neighbors and Kurds in the semi-autonomous
north have in the past raised concerns about Baghdad purchasing
sophisticated weapons systems such as F-16 jets.
Under Saddam, Iraq's air force was one of the largest in the
region with hundreds of mainly Soviet-designed jets. Its
military was disbanded after the former dictator was ousted
following the invasion in 2003.
(Writing by Patrick Markey)