BAGHDAD - Iraq has signed an estimated $3 billion deal to buy 18 fighter jets from the United States, officials said yesterday, in a measure aimed at protecting its air space alone, after years of relying on help from American pilots.
The F-16s aren’t expected to arrive in Iraq until next fall at the earliest, and probably not until 2013, meaning US troops may still be asked to patrol the country’s skies and train its air force for months, if not years, to come.
But US Army Lieutenant General Michael Ferriter called the F-16 deal “a game-changing capability.’’
“It provides the basis for their air sovereignty,’’ Ferriter told reporters in his Baghdad office.
There are 44,000 US troops in Iraq, with all scheduled to leave by the end of this year. But concerns about Iraq’s stability and continued attacks have spurred Washington and Baghdad to reconsider the deadline in a drawn-out political process that may not be decided until the 11th hour.
Underscoring Iraq’s security gaps, a militant group linked to Al Qaeda issued a list of attacks yesterday that it claimed it carried out in Iraq during the holy Islamic holy month of Ramadan. The Islamic State of Iraq said in the statement that it carried out 68 attacks in the country’s western Sunni-dominated Anbar Province in August and September, killing at least 90 people. The claims could not be immediately verified.
Officials in Baghdad and Washington worry that the US military withdrawal will leave behind partially trained Iraqi security forces unable to protect the country from foreign threats, especially during the rash of instability across the Mideast.
Iraq has said its air force is not ready to protect its air space alone.