By Raheem Salman
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq will receive the first 24 of 36 F-16 fighter jets it has ordered from the United States at the beginning of 2014, a senior official told Reuters on Sunday.
Under deposed dictator Saddam Hussein, Iraq's air force was one of the largest in the region with hundreds of mainly Soviet-designed jets. Its military was disbanded after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Last July, Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki doubled the number of warplanes Iraq had initially planned to buy to strengthen an air force neglected during a protracted period when the country relied on U.S. air support.
Iskander Witwit, the deputy head of parliament's security and defense committee, said that the first 24 planes would make up two air force squadrons.
"Iraq intends to have equipment which is more developed than neighboring countries have. Small neighboring countries like Kuwait even have five squadrons," Witwit said.
Iraq would be in the market for more planes in the future, Witwit said. Pilots are already training to fly the new F-16s.
Some of Iraq's neighbors and the president of its semi-autonomous Kurdish region, Masoud Barzani, have said they are worried about Baghdad acquiring the jets.
"I feel Kurdistan's future is in severe danger because of(Maliki)," Barzani said last week. "F-16 (jets) should not reach the hands of this man."
The central government and the Kurdish region have long-running disputes over political autonomy, oil rights and contested territories.
But Witwit dismissed the concerns, telling Reuters the warplanes were intended to defend Iraq, not "one man".
(Editing by Barry Malone/Maria Golovnina)