A surge of Al Qaeda-inspired violence has Iraq seeking support — and
big weapons — from the U.S. Counter-terrorism is a U.S. priority, but
some in Congress balk at certain arms sales. One reason: bloodshed in
By Howard LaFranchi
WASHINGTON — Iraq is experiencing a resurgence of Al Qaeda-hatched
violence — and the government of Iraq is citing a mutual terrorism
threat as it seeks to strengthen security cooperation with the United
The U.S., for its part, is open to obliging the Iraqis by enhancing
intelligence and counterterrorism cooperation and selling them
sophisticated military systems — anxious in particular, after recent
terrorist threats emanating from Yemen, to help Iraq avoid becoming
another base for Al Qaeda activities that could spread to
But some critics of the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri
al-Maliki — some members of Congress in particular — are saying “not
so fast” to Obama administration plans not just to enhance
counter terrorism efforts but also to sell the Iraqis hardware ranging
from sophisticated air-defense systems to Apache attack helicopters.
For some critics, it’s not so much Yemen as recent events in Egypt,
where the military has resorted to bloody repression of protesting
Egyptians, that should inspire caution about supplying deadly weaponry
to another Middle East government that has tense relations with part
of its population. Others say the U.S. should think twice about
providing sophisticated defense systems, given that Iraq has done
little to prevent Iran from using Iraqi air space to transport arms to
the Syrian government in a war with U.S.-backed rebels.
Yet as Iraq comes off its worst month of terrorist violence since the
darkest days of a sectarian war in 2008, Iraqi officials are
emphasizing why the U.S. should be interested in helping Iraq battle a
resurgent Al Qaeda.
“We want to work with you against our common enemy,” said Iraqi
Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, speaking Friday in Washington, where
he met with Secretary of State John Kerry and other senior U.S.
officials in the context of the U.S.-Iraq strategic framework
Emphasizing that Al Qaeda trains its fire on “both America and Iraq,”
Mr. Zebari added, “Nothing will endure that we have built together
unless we win the war against terrorism.”
Iraq has seen a recent uptick in suicide bombings and other terrorist
attacks, as radical Islamists shift back and forth across the Syrian
border. But July set a new high in violence since the departure of all
US troops in 2011, with more than 1,000 Iraqis killed. The latest Al
Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) attacks target mostly Iraqi security forces and
Shiite pilgrims — the latter part of an effort to reignite the
sectarian war Iraq experienced in the years after the US invasion,
according to some Iraq experts.
U.S. officials say the U.S. has a list of crucial national interests
in Iraq that makes U.S.-Iraq cooperation a high priority, but few are
more important than helping Iraq confront the AQI challenge, they say.
A top priority “is checking the… ascendancy of AQ in Iraq and making
sure that the sanctuaries in Iraq that they had back in the 2005,
2006, 2007 timeframe cannot be reestablished,” says a senior
administration official involved in last week’s bilateral discussions.
“And that’s something [upon which] we have an awful lot of work to
do,” adds the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity about
issues discussed privately with the Iraqis.
Other U.S. priorities for Iraq are a steady increase in oil
production, maintaining a unified country, continued compatibility
between Iraq’s “strategic orientation” and U.S. interests in the
region, and stronger democratic institutions and “democratic
orientation,” the official says.
That last priority is one that some critics say is getting short
shrift from the U.S. (not to mention the Maliki government) as Iraq’s
Shiite-dominated government confronts mounting protests from a Sunni
minority that insists it is being marginalized.
Enter the Apache attack helicopters that Iraq seeks to buy from the
U.S. The Obama administration is advancing a $4.7 billion package of
military hardware Iraq wants, but committees in both houses of
Congress have so far held up a separate purchase of Boeing Apache
helicopters. Their concern? That the Maliki government might end up
using the advanced weaponry not just to fight AQI, but also against
restive domestic political opponents.
Iraq’s Zebari dismissed those concerns during his comments Friday at
Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, pointedly
contrasting the Iraqi government’s response to recent political
protests to that of the Egyptian military last week.
Noting that protests have continued — and at times paralyzed —
portions of Sunni-dominated provinces during the past eight months,
Zebari said the “[Iraqi] government hasn’t resorted to the same
measures [as in Egypt] to disperse the demonstrations.” Iraqis, he
insisted, are more interested in “voting, not violence.” He also noted
that a package of measures to address Sunni concerns is making its way
That leaves the issue of Iran’s use of Iraqi airspace to transport
arms (and in some cases even fighters) to Syria’s President Bashar
al-Assad. That issue has also fed more general concerns about Iraq’s
cooperation with Iran — although Maliki’s Iraq has not become the
Iranian vassal that the U.S. and others once feared, some regional
Iraq has actually stepped up its inspections of Iranian flights
landing in Iraqi territory in recent months, State Department
officials say. But they add that the issue remains important to
Secretary Kerry and was addressed during last week’s bilateral talks.
They also note that the U.S. has informed Congress of the impending
delivery to Iraq of an integrated air defense system.
But that won’t arrive or be functional for some time. In the meantime,
Zebari says Americans who want better enforcement of Iraq’s airspace
should make it easier for Iraq to acquire the means to do that. “For
your information,” he told his Washington audience, “Iraq does not
have a single fighter plane.”