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.
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.
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.