BAGHDAD – Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced Saturday that Iraq plans to buy 36 U.S. fighter jets, signaling his intent to seek a long-term American military training presence in the country.
Iraqi leaders are debating whether to ask U.S. troops to remain after the end of the year, when the two nations’ security agreement expires.
Al-Maliki and other leaders want some U.S. troops to stay but have been unclear about how they would arrange it. They have said they would need parliamentary approval but also suggested that U.S. military trainers could stay on through agreements with ministries.
But U.S. officials have made it clear that a sizable troop presence would require the endorsement of al-Maliki’s government and parliament. It remains difficult for the prime minister to secure parliamentary approval with the vocal opposition of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s political bloc.
The Sadr bloc’s armed wing continues to wage attacks on U.S. forces. At least 18 U.S. troops have been killed in action since June.
On Saturday, al-Maliki forged ahead with his plan to buy F-16s from Washington and increased the size of a planned purchase.
“A delegation from the Iraqi air force along with advisers will travel to revive the contract to include a larger number than what had been previously agreed upon,” al-Maliki told reporters. The government had planned to buy 18 F-16s but put those plans on hold after demonstrations erupted across the country in February in anger over Iraqi political leaders’ failure to provide services and security.
“We should provide Iraq with airplanes to guard its sovereignty,” al-Maliki said, reiterating arguments for keeping small numbers of military trainers regardless of parliament’s reception.