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Why Iraqi request for help fighting Al Qaeda poses dilemma for US

A surge of Al Qaeda-inspired violence has Iraq seeking support – and big weapons – from the US. Counterterrorism is a US priority, but some in Congress balk at certain arms sales. One reason: bloodshed in Egypt.

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US officials say the US has a list of crucial national interests in Iraq that makes US-Iraq cooperation a high priority, but few are more important than helping Iraq confront the AQI challenge, they say.

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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 time frame 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 US priorities for Iraq are a steady increase in oil production, maintaining a unified country, continued compatibility between Iraq’s “strategic orientation” and US 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 US (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 US. 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 that 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 through parliament.

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 Mr. Maliki’s Iraq has not become the Iranian vassal that the US and others once feared, some regional experts say.

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 US 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.”

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