Iraqi PM affirms need for American trainers to help Iraqi forces operate and maintain F-16s but avoided saying whether they would be active-duty troops or contractors, sidestepping question of American military personnel staying past the end of 2011.
Iraq to order 36 F-16 fighter jets from the US to boost air force
BAGHDAD // Iraq's prime minister says he is reviving a 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 contractors, sidestepping the question of whether American military personnel will be asked to remain past an end-of-year deadline. That question is Iraq's top political issue and is being hotly debated among the country's leaders.
The fighter jet deal, which Mr Al Maliki announced at a press conference Saturday, 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," Mr 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.
Mr Al Maliki did not say when the purchase would proceed, where the money would come from or how it would affect other government programmes.
The prime minister's parliamentary appearance came after Iraq's political leaders postponed, for the second time in a week, a meeting to discuss whether US troops would be asked to continue training Iraqi security forces beyond the end of the year.
The US is pushing for a fast decision. Under an agreement between Baghdad and Washington signed in 2008, all American troops must leave Iraq by December 31.
But Iraq's continued instability has led many Iraqi and US officials alike to push for some troops to stay.
The issue has deeply divided Iraq's leaders, however, and a key Shiite bloc that helped Mr Al Maliki keep his job last year after his political coalition fell short in national elections has threatened violence if troops remain.
A new report released on Saturday by the US inspector who oversees Iraq's reconstruction concluded that the nation is more dangerous now than it was a year ago.
In his press conference, Mr Al Maliki reaffirmed his desire for trainers to remain to help Iraqi security forces use and maintain tanks, jets and other equipment the government is expected to buy from the US.
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 US military mission, but Mr Al Maliki 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 past 2011, but has been trying to paint it as a training force. Asking for US military forces to stay after years of war would be difficult to sell to the Iraqi public.
Mr Al Maliki defended his decision to have political leaders weigh in on whether troops should stay as a "big national issue that is related to sovereignty".
If parliament ultimately must decide to ask US 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 decision.
Mr Al Maliki went to parliament recently seeking reductions in the size of Iraq's government, and Iraqi MPs quickly responded by voting to eliminate 12 government offices among the cabinet's 45 ministries.
On Saturday, a patrol of US 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, 80 kilometres north of the capital, said Ali Abdul-Rahman, a spokesman for the Salahuddin provincial governor.
Mr 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 US military said troops in helicopters came under fire as they approached the area, and fired back. The US military spokesman, Colonel Barry Johnson, said the US troops were helping Iraqi forces look for terrorists.