BAGHDAD Contractors rather than U.S. military personnel will train Iraqis on how to operate new helicopters, tanks and patrol boats, a U.S. military official said on Tuesday.
Iraq has bought a range of military equipment including F-16 warplanes from the United States as it prepares to take sole responsibility for security more than eight years after the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Washington is due to withdraw its remaining troops, numbering about 43,000, from Iraq by December 31 although it is in talks with Baghdad to keep some U.S. soldiers on as trainers.
Lieutenant General Michael Ferriter, a United States Forces-Iraq deputy commanding general for advising and training, said training on all equipment purchased by Iraq would take 12-18 months.
"The new equipment training will be done by ... (those) who are serving as contractors," Ferriter told reporters, adding that some of the contractors were locally hired.
"Any other forces who are trainers will be assisting in that event."
Iraq's military says it needs training for its air and naval defenses as they rebuild their forces and battle a stubborn Sunni insurgency and Shi'ite militia, both capable of carrying out lethal attacks.
The war-battered country has bought a range of modern military equipment to boost its forces, including 12 patrol boats, 140 M1A1 Abrams tanks, armored personnel carriers and towed and self-propelled howitzers.
On Monday, an adviser to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said Iraq had signed a contract to buy 18 Lockheed Martin F-16 warplanes to bolster its air force.
"It's a game-changing capability," Ferriter said, referring to the purchase of the F-16 warplanes.
He said pilots operating the aircraft would be trained in Iraq and the United States for 18 months, while training on the M1A1 Abrams tanks would go on throughout next year in Iraq.
"On site, you'll have small teams of contractors that'll assist in teaching and go side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder, with the Iraqis," Ferriter said of the tank training.
"Most of the work is going to be done by contractors," he said.
Ferriter also said Iraq still needed a lot of ground training, particularly on how to operate with combined arms forces.
(Editing by Matthew Jones)