UPDATE 2-Iraq eyes Lockheed F-16 fighter aircraft purchase

(Adds details on F-16, Iraqi arms purchases, Lockheed backlog)

WASHINGTON, Sept 5 (Reuters) - The Iraqi government has asked for information about buying 36 F-16 fighter aircraft built by Lockheed Martin Corp LMT.N, the U.S. Defense Department said on Friday.

The request, received Aug. 27, is being reviewed “in the normal course of business” as part of the U.S. government-to-government arms sale process, said Air Force Lt. Col. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman.

Updated F-16s are among the world’s most advanced multirole fighters and a powerful symbol of military ties to the United States.

Iraq’s interest in the fighter jet, reported first by The Wall Street Journal, could spark concerns among neighbors worried about advanced arms in the hands of a country still facing major internal challenges.

U.S. reviews of possible arms sale can take a year or more. They involve the departments of State and Defense as well as Congress and weigh power balances, technology security and other thorny issues. If a contract were ultimately signed, deliveries could take another year or more, depending on the model in question.

The Pentagon did not specify which F-16 version Iraq was eyeing, nor whether it was new or refurbished. A Lockheed spokesman referred questions to the Pentagon.

F-16C/D Block 50/52 models are now being produced for Poland, Israel, Greece and Pakistan. The United Arab Emirates was the maiden customer for the Block 60 version, the most sophisticated F-16 produced to date.

More than 4,400 F-16s have been delivered worldwide, according to Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin. Morocco this year became the 25th and latest overseas buyer with a deal for 24 new Block 50/52 models and related gear said by the Pentagon to be worth as much as $2.4 billion.

Iraq’s request for pricing and availability data might not necessarily lead to a sale. Sometimes governments seek such information for planning purposes only, the Pentagon’s Ryder said.

Flush with billions of dollars from oil sales, Iraq is emerging as the biggest client for a wide range of U.S. weapons -- a shot in the arm for defense contractors such as Lockheed, Boeing Co BA.N, Northrop Grumman Corp NOC.N, General Dynamics Corp GD.N and Raytheon Co RTN.N.

Among other systems, Iraq is seeking more than 400 armored vehicles plus six C-130 transport planes built by Lockheed, the Pentagon’s No. 1 supplier.

On July 30, the Pentagon notified Congress that Iraq also was seeking to buy 24 Textron Inc TXT.N Bell Armed 407 or 24 Boeing AH-6 helicopters along with 565 120mm mortars, 665 81mm mortars, 200 AGM-114M Hellfire missiles and other arms that could be worth $2.4 billion.

Baghdad and Washington are working on a long-term security pact that calls for U.S. military forces to quit Iraq’s cities by next summer as a step toward a broader withdrawal from the country that U.S.-led forces invaded in 2003 to topple President Saddam Hussein.

F-16s would let Iraqi forces conduct airstrikes of their own on insurgent positions rather than relying on U.S. forces to do so, as is now the case.

Overseas sales have kept Lockheed’s F-16 production line open after the U.S. military shifted to more advanced fighters, including the radar-evading F-22 also built by Lockheed.

“The program is healthy and full of activity, with firm production through 2012 and a strong likelihood of new orders that will extend the line for several more years,” John Larson, vice president for Lockheed’s F-16 programs, told reporters in July at the Farnborough Air Show outside London. (Editing by Lisa Von Ahn, John Wallace, Phil Berlowitz)