Iraq's prime minister said Saturday he was reviving a stalled deal to buy multi-million-dollar fighter jets from the United States and affirmed the need for American trainers to help Iraqi forces operate and maintain the 36 F-16s.
However, Nouri al-Maliki avoided saying whether the trainers would be active-duty troops or private contractors _ sidestepping the key question of whether American military personnel will be asked to remain past an end-of-year deadline for withdrawing. That question is Iraq's top political issue and is being hotly debated among the country's leaders.
The fighter jet deal, which al-Maliki announced at a press conference, more than doubles the number of aircraft Iraq initially planned to buy.
"We should provide Iraq with the means, including warplanes, to protect its sovereignty," al-Maliki told reporters after addressing a closed session of parliament.
It was a turnabout from earlier this year, when Baghdad abandoned the deal and decided instead that it would spend hundreds of millions of dollars on food rations for poor Iraqis.
Al-Maliki did not say when the purchase of the F-16s would proceed, where the money would come from or how it would affect other government programs already in place.
The prime minister's parliamentary appearance came after Iraq's top political leaders postponed, for the second time in a week, a meeting to discuss whether U.S. troops would be asked to continue training Iraqi security forces beyond the end of the year.
The U.S. is pushing for a fast decision, arguing that it will soon be too late for it to plan for an extension of its troop presence.
Under a 2008 agreement between Baghdad and Washington, all American troops must leave Iraq by Dec. 31.
But Iraq's continued instability _ in its government and security measures _ has led many Iraqi and U.S. officials alike to push for some troops to stay. The issue has deeply divided Iraq's leaders, however, and a key political Shiite bloc that helped al-Maliki keep his job last year after his political coalition fell short in national elections has threatened violence if troops remain.
Fueling the debate, a new report released Saturday by the U.S. inspector who oversees Iraq's reconstruction concluded that the nation is more dangerous now than it was a year ago because of frequent bombings, political assassinations and attacks on U.S. and foreign missions.
In his press conference, al-Maliki reaffirmed his desire for trainers to remain next year to help Iraqi security forces use and maintain tanks, jets and other equipment the government is expected to buy from the U.S. He did not specify whether they would be active-duty military troops or private contractors and did not say how many trainers he thought would be needed.
Iraqi officials have predicted that the 325-member parliament will reject extending the U.S. military mission in Iraq, but al-Maliki on Saturday said "the presence of trainers does not need a parliament vote."
The prime minister appears to be preparing the Iraqi public for some type of American military presence in Iraq past 2011, but has been trying to paint it as a training force as opposed to combat units. Asking for active-duty U.S. military forces to stay in the country after years of war would be a difficult sell for the Iraqi leader when it comes to the Iraqi public.
Al-Maliki defended his decision to have political leaders weigh in on whether troops should stay _ instead of settling it alone _ as a "big national issue that is related to sovereignty."
If parliament ultimately must decide to ask U.S. troops to stay, then "it is better if the political blocs express their opinions in advance," he said. The prime minister would like to have the backing of Iraqi political parties before making such an unpopular political decision.
On Saturday, a patrol of U.S. and Iraqi forces came under fire in a village north of Baghdad and killed three people.
Clashes between the security forces and villagers broke out while solders were conducting a raid outside Balad, 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of the capital, said Ali Abdul-Rahman, a spokesman for the Salahuddin provincial governor.
Abdul-Rahman said seven people were also wounded. He said the clashes began when residents noticed suspicious movements in orchards near their houses and grabbed their weapons. The U.S. military said troops in helicopters came under fire as they approached the area, and fired back.
U.S. military spokesman, Col. Barry Johnson said the U.S. troops were helping Iraqi forces look for suspected terrorists.
Al-Maliki went to parliament seeking reductions in the size of Iraq's government, and lawmakers quickly responded by voting to eliminate 12 government offices among the Cabinet's 45 ministries. Al-Maliki told lawmakers the cuts would continue "in the aim of reform."
But Abbas al-Bayati, a legislator with al-Maliki's State of Law political coalition, said an overhaul of the remaining 33 ministries could take time, as merging and restructuring them will require new laws.
Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub and Bushra Juhi contributed to this report.