By Suadad al-Salhy and Jason Hovet
BAGHDAD/PRAGUE (Reuters) - Iraq has agreed to buy 28 combat planes 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 L-159 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 had 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.
The country will buy 24 new L-159 aircraft made by Czech company Aero Vodochody and four planes from the Czech military's stock.
The first plane, which will come from the Czech Defence Ministry, will be handed over within seven months of the contract's signing. New plane deliveries should start in two years.
"I can call what we agreed today a first step," Iraq's acting Defence Minister Saadoun al-Dulaimi said in Prague at a news conference with his Czech counterpart Alexandr Vondra.
Maliki led a delegation on a two-day visit to NATO member Czech Republic, with which it had discussed the purchase of the aircraft for more than two years.
Iraq is also purchasing more than 30 U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets, with the first planes due to arrive in March 2014. Those planes will form the backbone of the country's new air force.
Syria's crisis has become a delicate balancing act for Maliki as he juggles the rival influences of neighboring Iran and the United States, where some are calling on Washington to curb military aid to pressure Baghdad over Iranian flights.
Iraq this year signed $4.2 billion in arms deals with Russia. Those agreements and the Czech deal may allow Baghdad more maneuvering room to ease U.S. pressure over Syria by diversifying arms suppliers.
Washington complained last month that Iran was using Iraqi airspace to fly arms and men to help Assad. Iraq told U.S. officials that it was not letting through Iranian flights carrying arms.
Last week, Baghdad started asking Syrian-bound Iranian plans to land in Baghdad for inspections. But with few planes or helicopters and limited radar capabilities, Iraq will struggle to control flights crossing its territory.
L-159s are sub-sonic planes used for light combat planes or training. The Iraqi deal would be a huge success for the Czech arms industry.
Until now, the Czech Republic had not been able to sell the L-159 jets beyond the Czech military. The aircraft are the successors to the L-39 planes which the former Czechoslovakia shipped to Middle Eastern and North African customers.
(Additional reporting by Jan Lopatka in Prague; Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Pravin Char)