* General says supplying F-16s will take several years
* Iraq had said it needed them in 2011
* Could be powerful symbol of security ties
* Lockheed: current F-16 backlog runs production into 2013 (Adds Lockheed Martin comment on production line)
By Jim Wolf
WASHINGTON, June 4 (Reuters) - The top U.S. commander in Iraq said he expected the United States to meet a long-standing Iraqi request for new Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N) F-16 multi-role fighter aircraft, although not as soon as Baghdad had sought.
“We’re still working our way through that, but I think they will be new ones” rather than refurbished F-16s, another option that has been under review, Army General Ray Odierno told reporters at the Pentagon on Friday.
The U.S. Air Force has been quiet for months on the status of an assessment it carried out last year on Iraq’s air defense needs and whether it would recommend the F-16 sale.
Under the U.S. government-to-government Foreign Military Sales program, a transfer of such weapons is subject to approvals by the departments of defense and state as well as by Congress.
Odierno said the United States would not meet Iraq’s request before the scheduled completion of a phased U.S. troop withdrawal at the end of next year.
“This will be an evolving process over the next several years,” said Odierno, a four-star general who commands all U.S. forces in Iraq.
The F-16 is a powerful symbol of political and military cooperation with the United States and a potential key to fostering post-withdrawal U.S. and Iraqi security ties.
France, Russia, China and others have been jockeying to help fill Iraq’s multibillion-dollar arms wish list, which includes multi-role fighters to defend its air space from its neighbors.
Iraqi Defense Minister Abdel Qader Jassim said in July that Iraq had “many alternatives” for securing such aircraft if the United States failed to supply F-16s.
“We have to have the right airplane to protect our skies in 2011,” he told a July 28 joint news conference with Defense Secretary Robert Gates in Baghdad. “Wherever we can get it, we are going to obtain it.”
Iraq’s Air Force is on record as hoping to buy up to 96 F-16s through 2020, the centerpiece of billions of dollars that Baghdad may spend on foreign arms in coming years.
Lockheed Martin, the Pentagon’s No. 1 supplier by sales, said it typically takes 36 months to deliver an F-16 from the date a purchase contract is signed.
A total of 86 F-16s were in the production pipeline as of April 1, Laurie Quincy, a Lockheed Martin spokeswoman, said by email.
The current backlog would continue the production line through May 2013, and a new order from any country within the next 6 months would extend the line beyond that, she said.
The F-16 is the world’s most widely flown fighter. More than 4,400 of them have been produced or are in the pipeline for 25 countries, Lockheed says on its website. (Reporting by Jim Wolf; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)