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F-16 contractors leave Iraq's Balad again

The Lockheed Martin contractors who are supporting the Iraqi Air Force’s fleet of F-16 multirole fighters have left Balad Air Base again due to security threats, the US company has confirmed.

The company confirmed an earlier Reuters report on 10 May when it said it was “relocating our Iraq-based F-16 team” for employee safety reasons.

The New York Times cited an Iraqi official as saying Lockheed Martin had 70 employees at Balad, 50 of whom would be relocated to the United States and about 20 to Arbil in the autonomous Kurdistan Region. A senior Iraqi Ministry of Defence official told the newspaper that the contractors said they will return when Balad is protected and that their absence will affect F-16 operations.

Balad Air Base has been attacked several times this year, most recently with three rockets on 3 May, causing no casualties. The National Iraqi News Agency reported the following day that a new strategy had been introduced to protect the base that involved securing surrounding agriculture areas.

National Security Advisor Qassim al-Laraji visited the base on 8 May in an apparent effort to reassure the contractors and discredit the insurgents who are attacking the facility by stressing that no foreign troops are deployed at the base.

The US Department of Defense’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) reported in April that the Lockheed Martin contractors supporting the Iraqi F-16s left Balad in early March due to security threats, but some returned before the end of that month.

The contractors were absent for much of 2020 due initially to security threats and subsequently the Covid-19 pandemic, but began to return in September. The OIG has reported that Iraqi maintenance personnel need contractor support to carry out advanced and some intermediate maintenance of the F-16s.

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