* Iraq wants to buy up to 36 F-16s
* Fighter jet considered key to building Air Force
(Adds updated Lockheed comment, paragraph 5)
By Suadad al-Salhy
BAGHDAD, Sept 26 Iraq has signed a contract to
buy 18 Lockheed Martin (LMT.N) F-16 warplanes to bolster its
air force, an adviser to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said on
The value of the deal was not immediately known, but a
senior U.S. military official said recently the offer on the
table for the Iraqi government was valued at "roughly $3
Iraqi and U.S. military officials have said strengthening
its air force is one of Baghdad's top priorities as U.S. troops
prepare to leave by Dec. 31, more than eight years after the
invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein.
"The contract was signed ... and a part of the contract
cost was sent to the bank account of the company," said
Maliki's media adviser, Ali al-Moussawi.
Lockheed said in a statement it was "pleased by the
announcement that the governments of Iraq and the United
States" have agreed on the sale. The company added it welcomes
Iraq "as the 26th nation to operate the F-16."
The Pentagon said it was aware of news reports that Iraq
had signed the agreement but did not immediately confirm and
referred questions to Baghdad.
Iraq has long sought a combat jet for its rebuilt air
force. The government delayed a planned purchase of F-16s in
February to divert a $900 million down payment to its national
food ration programme to help quell street protests.
Maliki said on July 30 Iraq would buy 36 F-16s, double the
number it had originally planned, to shore up its weak air
defenses. The OPEC producer has found itself flush with cash
this year, reaping windfall profits as world oil prices have
remained above budget projections.
The two sides have been negotiating for the F-16 Block 52
export model with sophisticated avionics and weapons in a deal
that included maintenance and training, a U.S. military
Iraq is relying on the U.S. military for air support as it
rebuilds its forces and battles a stubborn Islamist insurgency.
Washington and Baghdad are discussing whether to keep some U.S.
troops or military trainers in Iraq beyond the year-end
deadline for U.S. departure.
Iraq's two airborne defense units, the Air Force and Army
Aviation Command, have only 158 aircraft, including 89
helicopters and 69 airplanes, and about 7,500 personnel,
according to U.S. figures.
At present, it has three Cessna Caravan propellor planes
equipped with Hellfire missiles but no combat jets, a U.S.
military official said.
(Additional reporting and writing by Jim Loney; Editing by Tim
Pearce and Todd Eastham)