By Suadad al-Salhy
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq has agreed to purchase 24 combat and training aircraft from the Czech Republic for about $1 billion as part of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's program to rebuild the country's air force and control its vulnerable airspace.
The purchase of Czech L159 jets came as Maliki faces pressure from Washington to prevent Iran transporting arms through Iraqi airspace to help Tehran's ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his battle to end a 19-month-old uprising.
Iraq has no real air force since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, and Baghdad says it will not be able to defend its airspace until 2020.
"We have a deal to buy 24 L159 combat and training aircraft from the Czech Republic. Four of them will be given for free and will be handed over within seven months," Ali al-Moussawi, Maliki's media advisor, told Reuters by telephone from Prague.
Czech Defence Ministry spokesman Jan Pejsek confirmed a preliminary deal for around $1 billion.
L159s are sub-sonic planes used for training or as light combat planes. The Czech Republic has not been able to sell the jets beyond the Czech army so the Iraqi deal would be a huge success for its arms industry.
(Additional reporting by Jan Lopatka in Parque; Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Pravin Char)