* 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 (Reuters) - 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 defences.
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 assassinations.
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)