|The deal is worth about $3 billion, and will involve training for Iraqi pilots on the new aircraft [USAF/GALLO/GETTY]
Iraq has made the first payment in a deal to buy 18 F-16 warplanes worth a total of about $3 billion from the United States, the US State Department has said.
"These aircraft are going to help provide air sovereignty for Iraq and to protect its territory," Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman, said on Tuesday.
"They also, as a significant military sale between us, are a symbol of the commitment that we've made to the Iraqi government to have a long-term strategic partnership between the United States and Iraq," Nuland said.
Ali Mussawi, a media advisor to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, confirmed the deal, though he did not give details on a potential delivery date, or how much of an initial payment Iraq had made.
Ali al-Dabbagh, a spokesman for the Iraqi government, said that $1.4 billion had already been transferred as a partial payment.
Iraq and the US had been close to reaching a deal on the fighter jets earlier this year, but Baghdad re-routed $900 million earmarked for the purchase to a welfare programme amid nationwide protests.
Maliki announced in August that Iraq was looking at the purchase of 36 jets, rather than the previously proposed 18.
Ten Iraqi pilots are already training on the fighter in the United States and their instruction could be completed before the delivery of the first planes to Baghdad, General Russ Handy, head of US air forces in Iraq, said on September 14.
The F-16s aren't expected to arrive in Iraq until next fall at the earliest, and more likely not until 2013 - meaning US troops may still be asked to patrol the country's skies and train its air force for months, if not years, to come.
US Army Lt. Gen. Michael Ferriter, however, called the F-16 deal "a game-changing capability".
"It provides the basis for their air sovereignty," Ferriter told reporters in his Baghdad office.
Iraq has said its air force is not ready to protect its air space alone, and the country's top-ranked military officer last year said US help may be needed until 2020.
Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq's foreign minister, told the Associated Press news agency in an interview on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York that the importance of the deal is "for the world to know that Iraq is an ally of the United States in the region".
Al-Dabbagh, the Iraqi government spokesman, cited a recent push to revive the F-16 deal "because the country's security is important, and the air force is the backbone for Iraq's defense".
"The air force is considered a vital factor to protect Iraq's sovereignty and security against external threats," al-Dabbagh said. "Iraq needs to build its air force and to depend on its own capabilities to defend the skies instead of asking other countries to do so - especially if we know that the US forces will leave at the end of this year."
Ferriter said it's still up to Iraq's government to decide if it wants US forces to do some of the training, or leave it all to private contractors.
Zebari, the Iraqi foreign minister, said "the idea, the policy, is to reach some training mission arrangements, agreement" with the United States. At least some of the training - including English-language classes - will be done in the United States, he said.