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 the government planned to buy 36 F-16 fighter jets to help the fledgling Iraqi 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 antigovernment 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 is 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.
Iraqi officials have said recently that they are unlikely to muster the broad political support needed for the parliament to agree to a new 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 memoranda of understanding rather than approval from lawmakers.
The comments appeared to further complicate the issue of whether American troops would stay. While U.S. officials have made it clear that they want to negotiate keeping some troops in Iraq, they have also said that granting troops immunity from prosecution in Iraq would be a condition for an 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, 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.