Iraq is delaying the purchase of 18 US fighter jets over budget problems and has decided to funnel the money into food for the poor instead, an Iraqi government spokesman said on Monday.
Iraq, like many Middle Eastern countries in the wake of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, is under pressure to demonstrate its commitment to helping its own people. However, delaying the purchase also leaves Iraq, which relies on departing US forces to protect its skies, vulnerable.
Ali al-Dabbagh told reporters that the Iraqi government would postpone the expected purchase of the F-16 fighter jets and would instead use the money to beef up food rations. The Iraqi government gives food rations to many of its neediest citizens, who complain the rations have gotten smaller.
Al-Dabbagh said an initial partial payment of about US$1 billion was to be spent this year on the fighter jets, but did not have an exact figure on the total cost of the deal.
“We need the money badly this year ... to finance other important items,” he said. “We thought that we cannot afford to buy the F-16s.”
Al-Dabbagh said that Iraq did not intend to purchase fighters from another country at a cheaper price, as some Iraqi newspaper reports had indicated in recent days.
“We feel that it is one of the most efficient fighters in the world, and we definitely need them,” he said.
According to al-Dabbagh’s Web site, the Iraqi Cabinet had been moving forward with the deal as early as Jan. 26 when it authorized Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is the acting minister of defense, to negotiate with the US about making the first payment on the planes.
Al-Dabbagh said the postponement would not affect the departure of US troops scheduled for the end of this year. Iraq relies on US planes and drones to patrol and protect its skies and the country’s head of armed forces has said Iraq will not be ready to protect its own airspace until 2020.
A US military spokesman said the US realizes that Iraq has to make tough budget decisions.
“The purchase of F-16s is one of many budget decisions they must make,” Colonel Barry Johnson said. “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.”
Iraq has been rattled by protests in Tunisia and Egypt that have toppled governments there. Hundreds of Iraqis rallied on Monday in central Baghdad, protesting the rampant corruption and the lack of government services that have plagued the country for years.
“We want reforms to take place,” said Hanaa Adwar, an activist from the nonprofit watchdog group, al-Amal. “We have witnessed the popular revolution carried by Tunisian and Egyptian people that led to the toppling of their regime[s].”