Iraq is preparing to buy as much as $13 billion in U.S. arms and military equipment, a huge arms order of tanks, armored vehicles and ships that American officials say shows Iraqi-U.S. military ties will be tight for years to come.

“It helps to build their capablities, first and foremost, and second it builds our strategic relationship for the future,” said Army Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero, the ranking U.S. officer responsible for training and advising Iraq forces.

U.S. and Iraqi officials will mark the formal end of U.S. combat operations Wednesday and the transition to a role of advising and assisting Iraqi security forces.

The number of U.S. forces have dropped below 50,000 and all American forces are scheduled to leave Iraq by the end of next year.

Military sales, which often include lengthy maintenance and training contracts, are part of American efforts to maintain a relationship with Iraq even as its troops leave.

About half the $13 billion in sales are finalized contracts and the rest are still in negotiations. The sales will make Iraq one of the world’s biggest customers for U.S. military arms and equipment.

The Iraq Defense Ministry intends to restore the country’s battered conventional forces into a state-of-the-art military, Barbero says.

“It’s going to be a modern and fairly sophisticated military,” Barbero said.

Part of the planned purchase includes M-1 tanks, the main battle tank for the U.S. military. Iraq wants to buy 140 of the tanks and Iraqi crews have already started training on them.

Iraqi forces saw firsthand the effectiveness of America’s M-1 tank during the first Gulf War in 1990-1991, when the U.S Army obliterated the slower and less sophisticated Iraqi tanks.

Iraq ‘s conventional weaponry came largely from the former Soviet Union and had been ravaged by Saddam Hussein’s war with Iran in the1980s and the 1990 Gulf War led by the United States under President George H.W. Bush.

The Iraq Air Force was practically wiped out in the wars. United Nations sanctions after the Gulf War prevented Saddam from maintaining his military or boosting its capabilities.

In addition to the $13 billion, the Iraqis have requested 18 F-16 Falcons, sophisticated fighter jets, as part of a $3 billion program that also includes training and maintenance on the aircraft.

If approved by Congress, the first aircraft could arrive in spring 2013. The first 10 pilots would be trained in the United States under the proposal.

Source: Jim Michaels for USA Today.

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