An F-16 Falcon
Dubai - Iraq is planning to expand its fleet of aerial reconnaissance planes "in the near future" and is hoping to sign a deal for a second batch of F-16 warplanes by next year, the country's air force chief said on Saturday.

The moves, laid out by Lt. General Anwer Amin on the sidelines of a conference ahead of Sunday's Dubai Airshow, are part of Iraq's efforts to move gradually away from dependence on U.S. air support.

"We have projects to buy UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) in the near future," Amin told reporters on the sidelines of the air marshals conference.

He said the Iraqi air force was looking into several options.

"One of the leading countries in the region is the United Arab Emirates, there is also the United States," he said.

The United States will withdraw its remaining 40,000 troops in Iraq by the end of this year, but Iraqi officials say it will take years before they are able to defend their airspace.

"Building an air force is a very complicated process that depends on several factors, including securing financial cover and human capabilities as well as time," Amin said.

Military experts say that Iraq's lack of a strong fleet of combat planes means that it will rely on the U.S. air force to shoulder this responsibility for some years.

"Certainly the United States air force will be there for the Iraqi air force if that's what the two governments agree to," Gen. Norton Schwartz, commander of the U.S. air force, said on Saturday.

Amir said he hoped a deal would be signed next year on the second batch of 36 F-16 warplanes Iraq plans to acquire.

"Eighteen planes have been bought, the contract has been signed, and the other 18 planes hopefully next year," he said.

Iraq made the first payment in the deal to buy the first set of warplanes worth a total of about $3 billion in September.

Amin said the Iraqi air force already runs an advanced fleet of reconnaissance planes that very few countries in the region have.

"These are planes that we are proud of using over the past few years to detect terrorist activities," he said.