US is dragging its feet on equipping Iraqi forces, ambassador charges

In a moment of diplomatic pushback, Iraq's government cites its own 'benchmark' for Bush to meet.

Stung by criticism from Washington for its failure to move faster on political and security issues, the Iraqi government is pushing back – charging the US is not doing enough to equip Iraq's security forces.

Lamenting that Baghdad's requests for everything from higher-caliber guns to armored personnel carriers have gone unanswered, Iraq's ambassador to the US, Samir Sumaidaie, said Wednesday, "We have some benchmarks of our own, and this is one of them."

Washington's list of political and security benchmarks for Iraq to meet will figure prominently in a comprehensive review of Iraq policy in September. The word "benchmarks" has come to symbolize the frustration that Iraqi leaders feel over intense pressure from Washington to meet what Baghdad sees as US priorities.

Meeting reporters in the Iraqi Embassy, Ambassador Sumaidaie said he could not explain the slow response to Iraqi arms requests. "If we want them to stand up, let's help them stand up," he added.

The US has had some problems delivering arms and equipment to its own troops in Iraq. Beyond that, the Pentagon and administration officials have debated for years the merits of delivering powerful weapons to the Iraqis. Amid evidence that Iraqi Security Forces are infiltrated by militias and insurgent groups, officials worry that US weapons would be turned against American soldiers.

The US has also worried that its arms could end up adding fuel to the fire of a potential civil war.

Sumaidaie said it is counterproductive to leave Iraqi forces poorly equipped. US soldiers arrive at battle scenes in armored vehicles, while "Iraqi soldiers pile into the back of pickup trucks," he noted. "They see their American counterparts fully armed, and that is demoralizing for them."

US arms sales to Iraq and Afghanistan in fiscal 2007 were pegged to total about $3 billion, including some armored personnel carriers to Iraq, say US defense officials. Air Force Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Kohler, director of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, told the Reuters Aerospace and Defense Summit in December those sales would be similar to sales in fiscal 2006.

Sumaidaie says the slow US response has led Iraqi officials to turn to other sources. He cites a recent deal with China to sell high-powered rifles to the Iraqi military. "We prefer to work with our American friends," Sumaidaie said, but chided the US that patience is running short.

The US is also concerned about high-powered weapons and munitions that are showing up at battle sites, such as the growing use of Chinese armor-piercing ammunition by insurgents. Pentagon officials have recently addressed these concerns with Beijing.

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