By Andrea Shalal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Lockheed Martin Corp this week will deliver the first of 36 F-16 fighter jets to Iraq, marking what Baghdad's envoy to the United States called a "new chapter" in his country's ability to defend its vast borders with Iran and other neighbors.
Iraqi Ambassador Lukman Faily will travel to Lockheed's Fort Worth, Texas, plant on Thursday for a ceremony at which Lockheed and the U.S. government will formally deliver the first F-16 to Iraq.
A group of three or four new jets will be ferried to Iraq before the end of the year.
"Iraq is a large country with over 3,600 km of borders, and we need to protect them," Faily told Reuters in a telephone interview. "We as a country didn't have that capability before."
Iraq has had no real air force since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 that eventually toppled Saddam Hussein.
Baghdad has also signed military contracts with Russia and the Czech Republic, among others, and has said it will not be able to fully defend its airspace until 2020.
Iraq also plans to buy Boeing Co Apache helicopters and other weapons from the U.S. government as it assumes responsibility for its own defense and counterterrorism efforts.
Faily said the U.S. government appreciated the urgency and scale of the challenge that Iraqi is facing given continued and mounting strife with insurgents.
"They know that the sooner and the wider capabilities they provide us, the more ability we will have to reduce the vicious cycle of killing where the terrorists are attacking our people," he said.
Faily said Iraq was completing work on the air base in Balad where the new jets will be housed. He said some Iraqi pilots had already been trained to fly the new planes, and more were in training now.
Iraq ordered a first batch of 18 F-16s in 2011 for $3 billion, followed by a second order of 18 jets in October 2012.
Lockheed is building the F-16s for Iraq under a contract from the Pentagon that also includes mission equipment and a support package provided by Lockheed and other companies.
Lockheed said the Iraqi order would keep the F-16 production line running through late 2017, but it continues to bid for new orders in hopes of continuing production through 2020. The company has built more than 4,540 F-16 aircraft to date.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal, editing by G Crosse)