By Raheem Salman
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's acting defense minister is in Russia negotiating the purchase of air surveillance equipment to help Iraq rebuild its crippled military defenses, a lawmaker said on Thursday.
American troops pulled out of Iraq in December, leaving the war-battered country to defend its own borders and airspace for the first time since it was occupied in 2003.
Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq's air force was one of the largest in the region with hundreds of mainly Soviet-designed jets. But its military was disbanded after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 deposed of Saddam.
"There is a delegation, headed by the minister of defense and the commander of the air force, that went to Russia to negotiate the supply of early warning systems, radars and some other civil defense apparatuses," Hakim al-Zamili, a member of the parliamentary security and defense committee, told Reuters.
Iraqi officials say it will take years before they are able to defend their airspace again and the military has started building a new air force almost from scratch.
Iraq is due to receive the first 24 of 36 F-16 fighter jets it has ordered from the United States at the beginning of 2014.
Iraq's air force also wants to acquire more long-range radars to cover more of the north and west, as well as ground-based air defense systems.
The worsening conflict in Syria, on Iraq's northwest frontier, threatens to spill over, and Turkey and Iran regularly launch air or artillery strikes on Kurdish rebels inside Iraq along its northern border.
Some of Iraq's neighbors and the president of the autonomous Kurdish region, Masoud Barzani, have said they are worried about Baghdad acquiring jets and other military equipment which they fear may be used aggressively.
(writing by Barry Malone)