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.

Susan Walsh/AP
Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari at the State Department in Washington, Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013. Mr. Kerry met Thursday with the foreign minister, and said that since he visited Baghdad in March, some progress has been made to stop Iraq from being a transit zone for weapons. But, he says, 'very significant' progress has yet to be made.

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 States.

The US, 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 international targets.

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 counterterrorism 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 US 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 US-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 US 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 US officials in the context of the US-Iraq strategic framework agreement.

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.

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.

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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