BAGHDAD — Iraq will at long last be getting the first batch of F-16 fighter jets it ordered four years ago, its air force commander said Thursday, a shipment that is expected to boost Iraq's capabilities in battling the extremist Islamic State group.
Lt. Gen. Anwar Hama Amin said the fighters would arrive on July 12 along with the U.S.-trained Iraqi pilots and spare parts and would immediately begin carrying out operations, according to a statement posted late Wednesday on the Defense Ministry's web site.
The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad did not confirm the date, and only said the planes were expected by the summer.
Iraq first ordered the 18 jets for $3 billion in 2011 to supplement its almost nonexistent air force. A year later, then-Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki complained over the delays in delivering the planes.
The pilots have been training with three of the planes in Arizona and plans to send them last year to Balad air force base in Iraq were scrapped after Islamic State militants threatened the area, according to an article on the Pentagon website.
U.S. personnel and contractors were evacuated from the base last summer after an IS blitz overran large swaths of the country, along with significant stretch of territory in neighboring Syria.
Iraq's air force has been at its lowest point and currently relies on U.S. planes to carry out airstrikes in the battle to dislodge IS militants from the north and west of the country.
By July, Iraq had also received a total of 13 second hand Russian Su-25 jets.
In other developments, Iraqi police and officials said Thursday that a suicide car bomb went off overnight next to a crowd of Shiite pilgrims near Balad as they were returning from a Shiite shrine the city of Samarra, killing eight and wounding 16.
Samarra is the burial site for two revered 9th century Shiite imams and on Wednesday, there was a ceremony marking the death of one of them. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
South of the Baghdad, a bomb exploded in a market in the town of Madain on Thursday, killing three people and wounding 10 others, according to police.
Associated Press reporter Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this report.