Five U.S. Air Force F-16 fighters jets fly in formation over the United States… (Reuters )
Reporting from Baghdad — Prime Minister Nouri 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.
But in an indication of the risks for the American military here, a U.S. watchdog group said that Iraq had become more hazardous.
"Iraq remains an extraordinarily dangerous place to work," Stuart Bowen, chief of the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, said in a report. "It is less safe, in my judgment, than 12 months ago."
The report notes that 44 Iraqi government and security officials have been assassinated since April. It also draws attention to the rocket attacks on the American Embassy in Baghdad's Green Zone enclave and a deadly bomb blast July 7 that killed two U.S. troops near an entrance to Camp Victory, the U.S. military headquarters in Iraq.
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.
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 Maliki's government and parliament. It remains difficult for the prime minister to secure parliamentary approval with the vocal opposition of Shiite cleric Muqtada 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, Maliki forged ahead with his plan to buy F-16s from Washington, and in fact increased the size of the planned purchase.
"A delegation from the Iraqi air force along with advisors will travel to revive the contract to include a larger number than what had been previously agreed upon," 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," Maliki said, reiterating arguments for keeping small numbers of military trainers regardless of parliament's reception. "There is a need for trainers to train the Iraqi army on the modern weapons which we bought."
Maliki went to parliament Saturday to seek a slimmed-down Cabinet. In a rare display of action, parliament approved the move, reducing the Cabinet from 44 to 33 ministries, with plans for more reductions in the months ahead.
Salman is a staff writer in The Times' Baghdad bureau.