BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq’s prime minister said Saturday he was reviving a stalled 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 private contractors — sidestepping the key question of whether American military personnel will be asked to remain past an end-of-year deadline for withdrawing. That question is Iraq’s top political issue and is being hotly debated among the country’s leaders.
The fighter jet deal, which al-Maliki announced at a press conference, 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,” 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.
Al-Maliki did not say when the purchase of the F-16s would proceed, where the money would come from or how it would affect other government programs already in place.
The prime minister’s parliamentary appearance came after Iraq’s top political leaders postponed, for the second time in a week, a meeting to discuss whether U.S. troops would be asked to continue training Iraqi security forces beyond the end of the year.
The U.S. is pushing for a fast decision, arguing that it will soon be too late for it to plan for an extension of its troop presence.