BAGHDAD, July 28 (UPI) -- As U.S. forces move toward for a gradual withdrawal from Iraq, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was in Baghdad Tuesday to discuss pressing security issues with government leaders, including the possible purchase of Lockheed Martin F-16 combat aircraft.
That's a highly sensitive issue. The Americans want to build up Iraq's military forces to take over their own security but rearming Iraq is fraught with pitfalls, given the sectarian divisions that plague the country and which has taken such a heavy human toll since the March 2003 invasion.
An effective military that can maintain internal security as well as protect against external threats -- and there are several of these -- is essential to any U.S. exit strategy.
But at the same time, Iraq must not have an offensive capability that its neighbors, mindful that Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980 and Kuwait a decade later, might perceive as threatening.
"We don't want to turn Iraq into an arsenal," Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a leading Shiite politician who became an interim prime minister, declared in June 2004.
"We don't want the military to return to a strategy of aggression. But we want Iraq to be strong enough to return assaults from others."
That entails an effective air force.
Iraq's air force was formed in 1931, which makes it the oldest in the Middle East. It was once one of the most powerful in the Arab world but was essentially wiped out in 1991 and played no part in the 2003 fighting.
Indeed, when the U.S.-led invaders struck, Saddam ordered his remaining military jets buried in the sand at their bases. Most remain there.
The U.S.-approved plan to rebuild a self-sufficient air force from the ashes of defeat envisions a strength of 350 aircraft and 20,000 personnel by 2020. At current estimates, that will cost the Baghdad government around $2 billion a year.
The post-Saddam air force currently operates 76 aircraft, all for non-combat missions, provided by the United States and other countries. That should increase to 123 non-combat aircraft by 2009, including U.S. supplied C-130 transports.
The air force has no fighters but Baghdad has approached the Americans to buy 18 F-16 Fighting Falcons, enough to equip one squadron, within the next year. The air force commander, Lt. Gen. Anwar Ahmed, says that Baghdad would like up to 96 F-16s by 2020.
An Iraqi Military Reconstruction Plan drawn up the Pentagon envisaged Iraq acquiring as many as 174 strike aircraft, most of which would be F-16 fighters.
It noted that with U.S. aircraft deployed in Iraq that would be a low priority. However, that position may have changed now the withdrawal is under way.
One U.S. official noted shortly before Gates' arrival, "We've said that we think it's a good idea if they go with a multi-role fighter -- that it be one of ours."
The Iraqis argue that, despite U.S. wariness about allowing Baghdad offensive capabilities, the country needs to be able to deter an attack from outside.
But given the fractious nature of Iraqi politics, split mainly between the majority Shiites, their putative allies, the Kurds and the minority Sunnis, internal power struggles remain the major security problem.
Kurdish leaders warned recently that the sale of advanced weapons systems, such as F-16s, to Baghdad must include guarantees they wouldn't be used against the Kurds' semi-autonomous enclave in northeastern Iraq.
Memories of Saddam's genocidal aerial poison gas attacks on rebellious Kurds in the 1980s in which tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, perished, are seared into the cultural psyche of Iraq's Kurds.
Even so, under a $2.4 billion deal Iraq is slated to get 24 Bell Armed 407 helicopters or 24 Boeing AH-64 Apache gunships, along with Hellfire missiles, engines and rocket launchers.
In 2007, Baghdad took delivery of 26 Mi-17 multi-role helicopters from Moscow, Saddam's main Cold War arms supplier.
The air force also needs more transports. The Pentagon has advised the U.S. Congress of a possible sale of at least six C-130J Hercules from Bethesda, Md., Lockheed Martin, plus associated services and training in a package that could total $1.5 billion.
The purchase of long-range early warning radar systems, notably the U.S. N/FPS-117, worth $140 million, is also being discussed.