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CAMP VICTORY, Iraq — The top U.S. commander in Iraq said on Tuesday that the country would not be able to fully defend its airspace by the end of 2011, when all U.S. forces must leave, according to the standing security agreement.

Gen. Raymond Odierno said a U.S. Air Force team would soon begin a full assessment of Iraq’s air patrol and defense needs.

“In order to protect your airspace, you’ve got to have radars, you’ve got to have some sort of an aircraft if someone penetrates your airspace — you have some way to protect it,” he said. “I mean, we’re going to have to come up with some solution to this over time.”

Earlier in the day, Iraqi Defense Minister Abd al-Qadir al-Mufriji said at a joint press conference with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates that he wanted a multi-functional fighter jet for the Iraqi armed forces, but was “looking at several options.”

“It’s going to take a long time to include those capabilities,” he said. “We have to have the right airplane to protect our skies at the end of 2011.” Most observers have taken that to mean F-16s, but it won’t be so simple.

“We know we can’t deliver brand new F-16s by 2011,” Odierno said. “It just takes that long to build them and get them over here.

“Remember, we’re not the only one that can deliver multi-role fighters. ... They could buy Mirages from France, or they could buy MiGs from Russia.”

But Iraqis have said they’d prefer to acquire U.S. fighters, he noted.

Odierno was unsure if U.S. fighter jets patrolling Iraqi airspace after the 2011 deadline to remove all U.S. troops would violate that security agreement. Other options, Odierno said, could include loaning retired F-16s or developing a package of various helicopters and other aircraft.

“There are many things we have to look at this,” he said. “We don’t know if it’s legal. We have to check with Congress.”

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