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Lockheed pulls F-16 maintenance teams from Iraqi base

Lockheed pulls F-16 maintenance teams from Iraqi base
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Lockheed Martin is pulling its maintenance crews for Iraq’s F-16 fighter jets after recent militia rocket attacks raised security concerns.

The New York Times first reported Monday that the U.S. defense contractor said it is withdrawing the F-16 teams from Balad air base, located 40 miles north of Baghdad.

Of the 70 employees at the base, 50 were expected to return to the United States and 20 were slated for reassignment in Erbil to the north, according to the Times.

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“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,” Lockheed said in a statement. “We value our partnership with the Iraqi Air Force and will continue to work with the Iraq and U.S. governments to ensure mission success going forward.” 

Lockheed previously temporarily withdrew its workers from Balad last year after a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad killed top Iranian commander, Maj. Gen. Qasim Soleimani, flaring tensions with Iran.

Lockheed by early February 2020 pulled their team out of Iraq at the guidance of the State Department and didn’t put them back in country until later that fall.

A person familiar with the situation told The Hill that because of the previous move, the contractor is prepared to support the Iraqi air force remotely.

They added that it is too early to speculate on if and when Lockheed may be able to resume operations in country.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby on Tuesday declined to answer questions on the level of coordination between the Pentagon and Lockheed ahead of the decision to transfer the workers.

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Speaking broadly, Kirby said the U.S. military is “committed to continuing to help Iraqi security forces as they defend their citizens and their country.”

“Our mission there… is about countering ISIS and helping them prosecute operations against ISIS. We do that in many different ways and obviously we’re in close touch with our Iraqi partners about their needs and the capabilities that they require to continue to prosecute that conflict. I don’t have any other detail today,” Kirby said.

Iraq has struggled to contain threats from Iranian-backed militias, with at least 10 rockets hitting the air base at Al Asad on March 3, five rockets falling within the Balad installation on March 15 and two rockets landing outside Balad in early April.

No U.S. service members were killed in the attacks, but a U.S. contractor at Al Asad suffered a heart attack and later died.

Some federal contractors have left the region in the past several months, according to a Defense Department Inspector General report published last week. A senior Iraqi ministry official told the Times it had asked Lockheed to hold off on moving its workers, with Lockheed reportedly saying personnel would return in several months once the security concerns subside.

Few fighters from Iraq’s F-16 fleet – purchased in 2011 after U.S. combat forces withdrew from the country – are still operational, and Lockheed’s decision now casts doubt on the country’s ability to fight ISIS militants without being bolstered by the U.S. military.