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New Iraqi air force buys its first two planes

BAGHDAD, June 15 (Reuters) - Iraq's nascent air force has bought two planes in Jordan, the first in a planned 16-strong surveillance force dedicated to protecting the country's borders and oil, the U.S. military said on Tuesday.

The Australian-manufactured SB7L-360 Seeker Reconnaissance Aircraft were purchased earlier this month and are due to be delivered to the southern city of Basra in mid-July.

"This purchase represents a significant leap forward in the Iraqi's ability to surgically find and respond to sabotage on infrastructure," said U.S. Marine Captain Jeremy DeMott, one of the U.S. officials overseeing the build-up of Iraqi forces.

"These aircraft represent the rebirth of an air force that will fly in cooperation with coalition forces for the first time in almost two decades."

Iraq's vital oil pipelines are frequently attacked by saboteurs seeking to undermine the U.S.-led occupation. Attacks on the southern oil export network disrupted flows for the second time in two months, industry sources said on Tuesday.

Iraqi Air Force pilots would receive basic training on the new planes and communicate suspicious activity to Iraqi and U.S-led forces on the ground, the U.S. military said in a statement.

Seeker aircraft are fitted with high-resolution surveillance systems and digital video recording hardware.

The Iraqi Air Force lost most of its fleet due to successive wars, lack of maintenance and looting. It now has some 150 staff, most still in training, the statement said. But plans are underway to expand the force to 500 by year-end.

Jordan has offered a gift of 16 helicopters and two aircraft to augment the new force.

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