Citing its food needs, Iraq delays buying fighter jets

By Rebecca Santana
Associated Press / February 15, 2011

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BAGHDAD — Iraq is delaying the purchase of 18 US fighter jets because of budget problems and has decided to funnel the money into food for the poor instead, the Iraqi government’s spokesman said yesterday.

Iraq, like many other Middle Eastern countries since the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, is under pressure to demonstrate its commitment to helping its own people. But delaying the purchase leaves Iraq, which relies on departing American forces to protect its skies, vulnerable.

Ali al-Dabbagh said the government would postpone the purchase of the F-16 fighter jets and use the money to beef up food rations to give many of its neediest citizens, who complain the rations have shrunk.

Dabbagh said an initial partial payment of about $1 billion was to be made this year on the jets, but he did not have the total cost.

“We need the money badly this year . . . to finance other important items,’’ he said.

Dabbagh said Iraq does not intend to purchase jets from another country at a cheaper price, as some Iraqi newspaper reports have indicated.

According to Dabbagh’s website, the Iraqi Cabinet had been moving forward with the deal as recently as Jan. 26, when it authorized Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the acting minister of defense, to negotiate with the United States about the first payment on the planes.

Dabbagh said the deal’s delay won’t affect the departure of American troops scheduled for the end of this year. Iraq relies on US planes and drones to protect its skies, and the head of the country’s armed forces has said Iraq will not be ready to protect its airspace until 2020.

A spokesman said the US military realizes Iraq has to make tough budget decisions.

“Any impact a decision to postpone the purchase of F-16s may have is just one of many factors the Iraqi government will have to weigh in considering its future security agreements,’’ said Colonel Barry Johnson.

Iraq has been rattled by the protests in Tunisia and Egypt, which toppled governments there. In small protests across Iraq, demonstrators have vented their anger at the Iraqi government, which they say is corrupt, and demanded improved services and more jobs. Hundreds rallied yesterday in Baghdad.

Despite having some of the world’s largest oil reserves, Iraq endures electricity shortages that make summer nearly unbearable, while winter leaves people shivering.

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