BAGHDAD — Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki on Saturday signaled continuing military cooperation with the United States, doubling the size of a planned purchase of U.S. fighter jets, but he sidestepped the crucial question of whether American troops will be asked to stay in the country past a Dec. 31 deadline for their withdrawal.
Maliki told reporters that the Iraqi government planned to buy 36 F-16 fighter jets to help the fledgling Air Force defend the country. Baghdad had postponed plans to purchase 18 of the multimillion-dollar jets, diverting almost $1 billion of the money to buying food for impoverished regions in a response to rising anti-government protests.
"We have to provide Iraq with aircraft to safeguard its sovereignty," Maliki said in announcing that the Iraqi military would revive the F-16 contract. "We will make it 36 instead of 18."
Maliki added that U.S. trainers would be needed to help Iraqi forces operate the jets, but it's unclear whether those would be private contractors or U.S. military personnel. Under a 2008 status-of-forces agreement between the United States and Iraq, the remaining 47,000 U.S. troops are scheduled to withdraw from Iraq by the end of the year unless a new agreement is negotiated to allow some of them to stay.
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Iraqi officials have said recently that they were unlikely to muster the broad political support needed for the parliament to agree to a new status of forces agreement. Asked whether he was closing the door on getting parliamentary agreement, Maliki declined to answer directly but said that military trainers would require only memorandums of understanding rather than approval from lawmakers.
The comments appeared to further complicate the issue of whether U.S. troops would stay. While U.S. officials have made it clear that they want to negotiate keeping some troops here, they've also said that granting American troops immunity from prosecution in Iraq would be a condition for any such agreement.
"The existence of the trainers...doesn't require voting by parliament," Maliki said. "But the existence of any soldier outside the agreement...or granting immunities requires their approval," he said.
With parliamentary approval seeming unlikely, however, some Iraqi lawmakers have suggested a smaller number of U.S. advisers and trainers in agreements negotiated between ministries. Some Pentagon officials say they wouldn't support such terms for American soldiers.
Driving home the political pitfalls of a continued U.S. presence here, Maliki said that U.S. forces were going too far in carrying out operations meant to defend themselves against an increase in lethal attacks against U.S. soldiers.
"The self-defense issue should not be widened to the extent of implementing separate operations," Maliki said. Referring to a recent incident in Maysan province in southern Iraq, where U.S. warplanes reportedly launched attacks, he said, "They (the Americans) apologized and it will not happen again."
The prime minister's ability to push through security and other legislation has been hampered by an unruly coalition government. Seven months after he formed a government, political parties have been unable to agree on who take up the critical posts of defense minister and interior minister. Those posts have remained vacant, giving Maliki even more power over the key positions.
On Saturday, Maliki said that if there were no agreement on the post of defense minister, he would appoint Sadoun al Dulaimy, a previous defense minister currently heading the ministry of culture.
The political turmoil comes at a particularly tenuous time. Adding to the uncertainty over U.S. troops, targeted assassinations and other attacks aimed at destabilizing the government and security forces have increased.
On Saturday, a new quarterly report by the U.S. special inspector overseeing Iraq's reconstruction funds concluded that the country is more dangerous now than it was a year ago.
"Iraq remains an extraordinarily dangerous place to work....It is less safe, in my judgment, than 12 months ago," the special inspector, Stuart Bowen, wrote in his report to Congress.
(Arraf is a staff writer for the Christian Science Monitor. McClatchy and the Monitor operate a joint bureau in Baghdad. McClatchy special correspondent Laith Hammoudi contributed reporting.)
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