Faced with the prospect of losing control of key parts of the country, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is asking for more US help on his Washington visit this week, two years after Iraq soundly rejected a continuing US military presence.
Cities such as Fallujah and Tel Afar, painfully wrested back from Al Qaeda by US forces during the war, are now in Al Qaeda affiliates' hands, leaving Iraqi army soldiers largely confined to their barracks. Local residents say that militants have more freedom of movement than police.
Mr. Maliki told reporters as he left for the US Tuesday that Iraq urgently needed weapons to “combat terrorism and hunt armed groups.”
In an op-ed in The New York Times, Maliki said he would propose "a deeper security relationship between the United States and Iraq to combat terrorism and address broader regional concerns," among them Syria, when he meets President Barack Obama tomorrow.
“The taboo [against asking for US help] has been broken,” said a senior Iraqi official on the eve of Maliki’s visit to Washington. “We do not have a firm grip on security so let’s ask our American friends to help us – not to send American troops but to help us with equipment, with technology, with advisers.”
The senior official, who asked to remain anonymous, said Iraq's request would include armed drones for use against fighters in areas bordering Syria. Iraq is already trying to speed delivery of F-16 fighter jets and Apache attack helicopters ordered from the United States.
Two years ago, Iraq very publicly rejected the prospect of keeping some US troops on the ground when an agreement on a limited US presence fell apart amid fierce opposition from across the political spectrum.
The issue is a sensitive one in both countries. In Iraq, political opposition made an agreement on keeping even a limited number of US troops in the country impossible. In the US, too, some lawmakers are wary of sharing advanced technology and intelligence with a government it considers too close to Iran.
But the conflict in neighboring Syria, which has crossed the border into Iraq several times, has given anti-terrorism efforts a new sense of urgency. Iraq has essentially closed its borders to Syria after a dramatic increase in bombings, which Baghdad claims are funded with outside money and facilitated by fighters and suicide bombers coming across the border.
Sliding into another war?
A bipartisan group of senators told President Obama this week that Maliki, acting under Iranian influence, is fueling violence by mistreating Iraq’s Sunni population and said that they feared Iraq could once again fall into civil war.
While Maliki has tried and in some ways succeeded in carving out a foreign and domestic policy independent of Iran, his government’s relations with Iraq’s Sunni population have certainly fueled Sunni discontent and created a community sympathetic to Al Qaeda. Iraqi security forces desperate to combat increasing attacks against Shiites have been duplicating the type of mass arrests of young Sunni men that helped fuel the insurgency when US forces rounded up entire Sunni communities.
“In places like Fallujah or Ramadi the army is arresting hundreds of people. It’s the only time people see the security forces,” says an international aid official, noting that as Al Qaeda has become more visible, army units have retreated. “In Mosul and Ramadi most of the attacks now are on security forces – that is what Mr Maliki should be concerned about.”
In the northern city of Tel Afar, the Shabak minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, has come under repeated attack. The city was an Al Qaeda stronghold before US forces drove the fighters out in 2005 and local security forces have once again lost control of the city.
And in Mosul and Huweija in northern Iraq, where government forces opened fire on anti-government protesters earlier this year, there have been significant desertions by Sunni police and soldiers.
Reaching across the aisle
Although Maliki is focusing on weapons to combat his country’s growing violence, the US is likely to press him to reach out to Sunnis and to his political opponents to calm the waters.
Three years after he formed a fragile coalition government, the country has no interior or defense minister because political leaders could not agree on candidates. It also essentially has no president. President Jalal Talabani, who has traditionally played a peacemaking role, has been undergoing treatment in Germany since last year and, although unacknowledged, is assumed to be incapacitated. Acknowledgement by his Kurdish party that Talabani is not coming back would trigger even more political instability.
Maliki is expected to seek a third term in office in an election scheduled for April, although Iraq’s divided parliament has once again postponed voting on the legislation that would make those elections possible. Election authorities have said they need at least six months to prepare for a vote.
The senior Iraqi official said that although Iraq believed the US was eager to disengage after the departure of US troops, Maliki would emphasize the two countries’ shared fight against Al Qaeda and the need for better security to prepare for elections.
Many Iraqis and analysts fear that attacks will become more frequent in the run-up to elections, as happened before provincial elections this year.
“I’m not sure elections will solve any problem,” says the aid official. “ In the run-up to the election all the parties will campaign on a sectarian message and that’s not going to help.”