As Iraq continues to rebuild its Air Force, one glaring hole in its capabilities is the lack of combat aircraft. With U.S. forces set to completely withdraw from the country by the end of the year under the current Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), the Iraqi Security Forces will be faced with the responsibility of air policing and aerial protection, but without sufficient aircraft to do the job.

To remedy that situation, the Iraqi government is currently negotiating with the U.S. to buy 18 F-16 jet fighters. On January 26, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Cabinet green-lighted negotiations on first-payment terms of the contract.

During this process, France has offered to sell Baghdad its own fighters. The French proposal calls for the sale of 18 Mirage F1 retrofitted aircraft at the cost of $1 billion. The two sweeteners in this deal are the quick delivery schedule – starting in late 2011 – and the accessibility of the aircraft to some Iraqi pilots who formerly served in the armed forces of the previous Baathist government under Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi Air Force during Hussein’s reign relied largely upon French- and Russian-produced hardware, including Su-20s, MiG-21s, MiG-23s, and Dassault Mirage F1EQs.

The French offer is interesting considering that the Iraqi government has attempted to reclaim 18 French-built Mirage F1s left in France during the 1990s for servicing. These remained in France due to the arms embargo placed on Iraq following Operation Desert Storm.

In addition, Baghdad has sought to recover EUR651 million ($800 million) paid in advance to France in September 1985 as part of an order for 126 Mirage F1s. A final batch of 24 aircraft was never delivered to Iraq due to the U.N. sanctions. However, as France forgave roughly 80 percent of the EUR4.8 billion in debt owed by Iraq, it is unlikely that Baghdad will receive this money.