With the spike in violence in Iraq since the US troop pullout two weeks ago, concern is rising about US weapons sales to Iraq's government and whether a buildup of armaments could even serve to fuel sectarian tension there.
The apparent effort of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to consolidate power since the US withdrawal is worrisome to some defense analysts in the US, who say it's conceivable that he could use weapons purchased from the US against his political enemies and the people of Iraq.
A top US military official still on the ground in Iraq, under the auspices of the State Department, discounts such concerns, saying safeguards are in place to prevent such an outcome – and that all military sales include monitoring "to make sure the [Iraqi] government isn't in violation of human rights."
A job of the 150 uniformed US troops still in Iraq is something akin to that of salesmen, helping Iraqi officials buy US-made weapons and tanks for their security forces. That mission could change, though, if the violence were to throw Iraq into crisis.
“If things went really badly in one direction, there’s a possibility that the US could decide, ‘We’re not going to arm and train a government that’s doing certain things,’ ” says Marisa Cochrane Sullivan, deputy director of the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. “That’s a big policy question.”
Iraq's Kurdish people, who control territory in the oil-rich north, for example, “are very concerned about the arms sales going to the Iraqi security forces,” Ms. Sullivan says. “They are very concerned that [the weapons] are going to be turned against them.”
The US military is well aware of the humanitarian considerations that accompany US weapon sales to Iraq, says Lt. Col. Jeffrey Klein, Army deputy for the US Embassy's Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq (OSC-I) in Baghdad. “Obviously we’re not going to do things or sell things that would be antithetical to US interests or create geopolitical problems within a region,” he says.
To that end, safeguards are in place, US military officials add. Any sale of more than $50 million requires congressional notification and post-sale monitoring by those 150 troops still in Iraq, as well. “We’re not just wholesalely throwing stuff out there to be used anywhere,” says Klein.
This monitoring “is conducted to make sure the government isn’t in violation of human rights,” says Lt. Col. Thomas Hanson, a spokesman with OSC-I, who is also in Iraq. “All that has been conducted with the government of Iraq, and continues to be conducted every time we make a sale.”
The OSC-I also conducts spot checks to make sure sensitive equipment, including night-vision goggles, isn’t being misused – “to make sure they’re not being diverted for nefarious purposes,” Hanson says. On that count, “In terms of technical compliance, we’ve had no problems” with the Iraqi government to date, he says.
As part of any weapon sales agreement with Iraq, the OSC-I tacks on a 3.8 percent surcharge for its services shepherding contracts and training Iraqis to use the weapons and vehicles, as well as for spare parts. The OSC-I also employs some 760 contractors who work with the equipment and help with training.
There's also the argument that the US could use military sales as a bargaining chip with Iraqi political brokers, now that US influence in Iraq has shrunk along with its troop presence.
The Iraqi government is particularly interested in acquiring F-16 fighter jets. During Mr. Maliki's visit to Washington earlier this month, President Obama announced the sale of 18 F-16s to the Iraqi government, on the heels of a previous sale, for a total of 36 fighter jets. The first deliveries of the aircraft are scheduled for 2014.
“That could be one way to garner some leverage over the prime minister,” says Sullivan. It could also encourage the Kurds – whose support Maliki currently relies upon to keep his [party's] parliamentary majority – to take an active role in tamping down sectarian tensions.
The question is what Maliki, and in turn Iraqi security forces, will do with arms already have in hand. Since Maliki's moves last week to take up an arrest warrant against his vice president and to fire the deputy prime minister, security has deteriorated. “I don’t think anyone expected it to unravel this quickly,” Sullivan says. “We’ll see where it goes.”