BAGHDAD, Sept. 16 (UPI) -- Iraq is "very close" to finalizing a deal to buy 18 Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter jets, enough for one squadron for its nascent air force and the first of as many as 96 of the strike aircraft.
But even if the sale goes through following months of indecision, oil-rich Iraq will lack air power for several years, leaving it vulnerable in a region riddled with rivalry and crisis.
For instance, right now Iraq can do nothing to prevent warplanes from northern neighbor Turkey conducting airstrikes against Kurdish separatists in their sanctuaries in Iraq's northwestern Kurdish zone.
Providing the Shiite-dominated coalition government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki with advanced combat aircraft is one of the Americans' major dilemmas as they move toward completing their military withdrawal by Dec. 31.
Iraq's neighbors remain wary of Baghdad, despite the fall of Saddam Hussein. He invaded twice -- Iran in September 1980, triggering an eight-year in which 1 million people died; then Kuwait in August 1990, starting another war.
But the United States needs to ensure that Iraq's armed forces, rebuilt, trained and largely armed by Washington since the 2003 invasion, are capable of maintaining security and stability in a tough and warlike neighborhood.
Maliki froze a $2.4 billion deal for 18 F-16 Black 52 export models in February, with delivery expected in 2013.
Baghdad said it was diverting a planned down payment of $900 million to ease food shortages and prevent protests breaking out as the Arab world was plunged into turmoil by a wave of pro-democracy uprisings.
In July, Maliki announced plans to purchase 36 F-16s, doubling the number aircraft initially planned, which would give the Iraqi air force its first combat aircraft.
"We have to provide Iraq with airplanes to safeguard its sovereignty," Maliki declared.
Now the order appears to have gone back to 18, with the two sides negotiating an overall package that includes maintenance, training pilots and ground crews, avionics and weapon systems.
But U.S. Air Force Gen. Russell Handy, head of the U.S. air forces in Iraq, said Wednesday Maliki still wants 36 F-16s.
"They're seeking to buy a larger number of F-16s than they had originally, up to 36," he said.
"This first letter of offer and acceptance is for 18 of them, so we hope to hear from them very soon but there's no final word on that yet."
Iraq's decision to go for 36 F-16s indicated that Maliki wants to secure a long-term U.S. military training presence in the country.
But whether that's linked to moves to retain several thousand U.S. troops in Iraq after the Dec. 31 withdrawal deadline isn't clear.
Lockheed Martin said in May that it hoped to finalize the deal early next year.
It remains unclear whether Baghdad wants to buy the 36 planes in one swoop or over a particular period of time.
However, Handy said that prospects the contract can now move ahead were "promising."
Handy added, "We feel we're very close to the signing that letter of offer and acceptance."
The Iraqis have said they ultimately want 96 F-16s, enough for five or six squadrons.
Contract talks apparently got back on track amid Iraq receiving windfall profits from oil exports as prices remained above the budget predictions of Maliki's government.
Iraq earned $7.31 billion from oil sales in July, the fifth consecutive month that revenue topped $7 billion.
That gave Baghdad total revenue for the year to that point of $48.6 billion, putting it well on the way to reaching its target of $80 billion for the year. That would be a hike of 53 percent over the $52 billion earned in 2010.
Iraq's air force is the weakest branch of its reconstituted armed forces, which are still fighting insurgents eight years after the U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam.
Under Saddam, Iraq's air force was the sixth largest in the world, with more than 900 aircraft, 40,000 personnel and 24 operational bases. But as a fighting force it was effectively destroyed in Operation Desert Storm in 1990-91.
Some jets were flown to neighboring Iran to escape destruction but these were commandeered by Tehran. When the Americans invaded in March 2003, the remnants of the air force never got off the ground.