Iraq has signed an estimated $3 billion deal to buy 18 fighter jets from the United States, officials said today, in a crucial step to protect its airspace alone after years of relying on help from American pilots. But the F-16s aren't expected to arrive in Iraq until next fall at the earliest, and more likely 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.
Iraq has said its air force is not ready to protect its air space alone, and the country's top-ranked military officer last year said US help may be needed until 2020. US Army Lt. Gen. Michael Ferriter today called the F-16 deal "a game-changing capability" that "provides the basis for their air sovereignty." The deal has been in the works for more than a year, but was shelved in February when Iraq decided to spend more on food rations for its poor before buying the fighter jets.