Iraq’s F-16s Grounded After Lockheed Martin Withdraws Crews

BAGHDAD — Lockheed Martin said Monday that it was withdrawing its maintenance teams for Iraq’s F-16 fighter jets for security reasons, as the Iraqi government struggles to end rocket attacks by militias suspected of being backed by Iran.

The departure by the U.S. weapons manufacturer from Balad air base, 40 miles north of Baghdad, highlights the Iraqi government’s inability to rein in the militias, which are thought to be behind attacks on U.S. interests. It comes a year after the Iraqi prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, took power pledging to reduce Iranian influence in the country.

The decision by Lockheed Martin is expected to ground the few remaining F-16s from Iraq’s fleet that were still operational. That is casting doubt on Iraq’s ability to fight Islamic State militants without substantial U.S. help, at a time when Mr. Kadhimi is under pressure to negotiate a withdrawal of all American forces.

“In coordination with the U.S. government and with employee safety as our top priority, Lockheed Martin is relocating our Iraq-based F-16 team,” Joseph LaMarca Jr., a company vice president for communications, said in a statement.

Mr. LaMarca declined to say how many employees were being withdrawn, and another company spokesperson said Lockheed Martin would not disclose any further information.

Iraq’s Defense Ministry did not comment, but an Iraqi security official, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said that Lockheed Martin had 70 employees at Balad. He added that 50 would be relocated to the U.S. while about 20 would be moved to Erbil in the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

A senior ministry official, who asked not to be identified so as to speak openly, confirmed that Martin Lockheed was withdrawing the team because of repeated rocket attacks on the base. He said that efforts to persuade the company to stay had failed.

“We asked them to delay the decision,” the official said. “They told us, ‘We will leave for two or three months, and when you provide protection we will return to Iraq.’”

“Unfortunately, the departure will affect the operation of the F-16s,” he said.

Iraqi officials say they are continuing talks with Iran-backed militias to try to persuade them to halt the attacks on Balad as well as other U.S. targets in central Iraq and the Kurdistan Region. Some of the attacks are believed to have been carried out by proxies of the main groups, which have denied responsibility.

The F-16s were purchased in 2011, following the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from the country. At the time, the multibillion-dollar deal was heralded as opening a new era of U.S.-Iraqi security cooperation and Iraqi security self-sufficiency.

Lockheed Martin withdrew personnel from Balad temporarily last year after tensions rose with Iran following an American drone strike in Baghdad that killed a prominent Iranian commander, Maj. Gen. Qasim Soleimani, and a senior Iraqi security official at Baghdad International Airport.

Those tensions threatened to flare again last week after a detailed Yahoo News report about the drone strike, which said it was carried out by U.S. operatives with the help of Israeli intelligence and the participation of Kurdish counterterrorism forces. The government of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region has denied that its forces participated.

Iran-backed militias are also believed to be responsible for the continued assassinations of Iraqi human rights activists, many of them in oil-rich southern Iraq. Demonstrators set fire to trailers and tires near the Iranian consulate in Karbala on Sunday after Ihab al-Wazni, a protest leader and anti-corruption campaigner, was shot in the head. Few of the dozens of assassinations have led to criminal charges.

The Iraqi prime minister, in an interview recorded Saturday with several Iraqi television channels, said Iraq was trying to persuade the remaining U.S. companies that their employees would be safe, and acknowledged the F-16 program had been problematic.

“The lack of experts to maintain aircraft according to the agreement signed with the American companies when buying them is a problem,” he said. “Some of these companies withdrew from Iraq due to irrational actions and the missile attack on Balad Air Base.”

It was not clear whether Mr. Kadhimi was referring to the latest rocket attack on May 3, targeting the Balad compound of another U.S. military contractor, Sallyport. No casualties were reported in that attack, but local employees of some Iraqi contractors have been killed and wounded.

Iraq was forced to ground most of its F-16s last year because of poor maintenance, caused partly by a previous withdrawal of Lockheed Martin crews.

An investigation by Iraq Oil Report found that because of the maintenance problems, Iraqi pilots were not able to log enough flying hours to remain qualified. It also reported widespread corruption at the Iraqi-run base, including the embezzlement of jet fuel and the fabrication of waivers for substandard parts used in repairs on the F-16s.