Iraq has signed an estimated $3 billion deal to buy 18 fighter jets from the United States, officials said Tuesday, in a measure aimed at protecting its air space alone after years of relying on help from American pilots.
The F-16s aren't expected to arrive in Iraq until next fall at the earliest, and more likely not until 2013 _ meaning U.S. troops may still be asked to patrol the country's skies and train its air force for months, if not years, to come.
But U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Michael Ferriter called the F-16 deal "a game-changing capability."
"It provides the basis for their air sovereignty," Ferriter told reporters in his Baghdad office.
There currently are 44,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, with all scheduled to leave by the end of this year. But concerns about Iraq's stability and continued attacks have spurred Washington and Baghdad to reconsider the deadline in a drawn-out political process that may not be decided until the 11th hour.
Underscoring Iraq's security gaps, a militant group linked to al-Qaida on Tuesday issued a list of attacks it claimed it carried out in Iraq during the holy Islamic holy month of Ramadan. The Islamic State of Iraq said in the statement that it carried out 68 attacks in the country's western Sunni-dominated Anbar province in August and September, killing at least 90 people. The claims could not be immediately verified.
Officials in Baghdad and Washington worry that the U.S. military withdrawal will leave behind partially trained Iraqi security forces unable to protect the country from foreign threats, especially during the rash of instability across the Mideast.
Iraq has said its air force is not ready to protect its air space alone, and the country's top-ranked military officer last year said U.S. help may be needed until 2020.
The deal has been in the works for years, but was shelved in February when Iraq decided to spend more on food rations for its poor before buying the fighter jets. In August, however, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced Iraq would buy 32 fighter jets _ twice as many as originally planned.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh cited a recent push to revive the F-16 deal "because the country's security is important, and the air force is the backbone for Iraq's defense."
"The air force is considered a vital factor to protect Iraq's sovereignty and security against external threats," al-Dabbagh said. "Iraq needs to build its air force and to depend on its own capabilities to defend the skies instead of asking other countries to do so _ especially if we know that the U.S. forces will leave at the end of this year."
The jets come with a package to train Iraqi pilots for up to 18 months and is valued at $3 billion, according to another senior U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the security deal. Al-Dabbagh said $1.4 billion has already been transferred as a partial payment.
Ferriter said it's still up to Iraq's government to decide if it wants U.S. forces to do some of the training, or leave it all to private contractors.
At least some of the training _ including English-language classes _ will be done in the United States, he said.
Fearful of a political fallout and a potentially violent backlash from anti-American militias, Iraq's government is reluctant to ask U.S. troops to stay past their scheduled Dec. 31 withdrawal. Washington, too, is leery of looking like it is extending the Iraq war after more than eight years and a slumping economy ahead of President Barack Obama's 2012 re-election campaign.
Washington is especially concerned about Iran's extended influence in Baghdad and instability throughout the region. Negotiations to keep a few thousand American troops in Iraq next year are ongoing, although officials on both sides say little progress has been made.