BAGHDAD - Iraq has postponed the planned purchase of 18 F-16 fighter planes from the United States this year and diverted the funds to feeding the poor, an official said on Monday, amid growing protests that have been inspired by the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.
"The F-16 contract has been postponed this year and the money has been diverted toward improving food rations" for the poor, government spokesman Ali Dabbagh said.
"No more fighter contract," he added.
"In the new draft budget for 2011 that was presented to us, $900 million was earmarked for the purchase of F-16s, which will be used to finance rations and social benefits," confirmed Mohammed Khalil, a Kurdish MP who is a member of parliament's finance committee.
"We had to make choices because of the budget deficit," he added.
This year's draft budget projects spending at $81.86 billion and revenues of $68.56 billion, leaving a $13.3 billion deficit.
In an interview this month Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said that six million Iraqis possessed food ration permits, entitling them to the full quota of subsidised essentials. He said his government would increase the total amount spent on food rations for the needy from $3 billion to $4 billion.
For more than a year, Iraq has been engaged in talks with the United States for F-16 fighters to protect its airspace after the planned departure of US forces at the end of this year which will leave Iraq without air cover.
Brigadier General Jeffrey Buchanan, the spokesman for US forces in Iraq, said this month that the full package of the F-16 deal was worth $3 billion, and the version on offer was the Block 52 model.
"The long-term value of the offer for the 18 aircraft was $3 billion, including the aircraft, ammunition, spare parts, training and everything else, including avionics and electronics," Buchanan said.
Protests over irregular deliveries of rations and lack of basic services like electricity have sparked protests around Iraq that have multiplied since uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt toppled entrenched dictatorships in those countries.