BAGHDAD – Iraq is delaying the purchase of 18 American fighter jets over budget problems and has decided to funnel the money into food for the poor instead, said the Iraqi government spokesman 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. But delaying the purchase also leaves Iraq, which relies on departing American forces to protect its skies, vulnerable.
Ali al-Dabbagh told The Associated Press 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 $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."
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 Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is the acting minister of defense, to negotiate with the Americans about making the first payment on the planes.
Al-Dabbagh said the postponement would not affect the departure of American troops scheduled for the end of this year. Iraq relies on American 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.
An American military spokesman said the U.S. realizes that Iraq has to make tough budget decisions.
"The purchase of F-16s is one of many budget decisions they must make," said Col. Barry Johnson. "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. In small-scale protests across Iraq, demonstrators have vented their anger at the Iraqi government, which they say is corrupt and demanded improved government services and more jobs.
Hundreds of Iraqis rallied Monday in central Baghdad, protesting the rampant corruption and the lack of government services that have plagued the country for years.
Despite sitting on some of the world's largest oil reserves, Iraqis endure electricity shortages that make summer almost unbearable and leave them shivering in winter. There are also water shortages, and garbage is often left on the streets. At the same time, Iraqis are infuriated by the high salaries earned by their elected officials, compared with ordinary Iraqis.
"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."
Many of the demonstrators carried banners that bore the image of a broken red heart, alluding to the fact that the protest took place on Valentine's Day. They shouted slogans saying Iraq's oil wealth should go to the people but goes to thieves instead.
"Government, you should take lessons from Egypt and Tunisia," demonstrators shouted as they walked through downtown.
On Sunday, al-Maliki met with government officials to discuss problems facing Iraqis, specifically the electricity shortage and the food rations, and vowed to address the problems.
Associated Press reporters Hamid Ahmed and Saad Abdul-Kadir contributed to this report.