Fall of Fallujah reverberates in Washington. But will US help Iraq?

After militants seized Fallujah over the weekend, Secretary Kerry vowed 'everything that is possible' to help Iraq fight a resurgent Al Qaeda. Iraq has sought US arms for years, but Congress has balked.

A man aims his weapon during clashes with Iraqi security forces in Fallujah, Iraq, on Sunday.

Al Qaeda’s resurgence in Iraq’s Sunni regions and growing concerns over the return of civil conflict to a country the US military left just two years ago are spawning a debate over who’s to blame for the renewed strife – and what the US should do about it.

Two Republican senators – Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Arizona’s John McCain – were quick to blame President Obama when Al Qaeda-affiliated militants seized key cities in Iraq over the weekend. Among them was Fallujah, a city US Marines retook from militants in 2004 in some of the most intense and bloody fighting the US military had seen since Vietnam.

“When President Obama withdrew all US forces [from Iraq] … many of us predicted that the vacuum would be filled by America’s enemies and would emerge as a threat to US national security interests,” they said in a statement Saturday. “Sadly, that reality is now clearer than ever.”

What the two senators did not mention is that it is Congress that has long held up a multi-billion-dollar package of arms purchases by Iraq – including Apache attack helicopters – that the Obama administration supports. The government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki says it needs the arms purchases to defeat the rallying militants.

On Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry pledged to do “everything that is possible” to help Iraq fight off extremists he described as “the most dangerous players” in the region. But that may have rung hollow with the Iraqi government. Administration officials have spoken publicly for months about aiding Iraq against a rising tide of extremist violence, but all that has been furnished were 75 Hellfire missiles – which a nearly nonexistent Iraqi Air Force has had to attach to Cessna planes – and some drones in December.  

The US reluctance, particularly in Congress, to aid Iraq has stemmed from concerns that Mr. Maliki would use American military hardware to subdue the Sunni community – including tribal leaders from Sunni-dominated Anbar Province who have turned increasingly hostile to the Maliki government.

When Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari campaigned for approval of the arms package during a visit to Washington in August, some members of Congress cited the experience of Egypt, where the military turned on protesters, to caution against sending Apaches to Baghdad.

Maliki then visited Washington in October and renewed the push for the Apaches, while also pressing for the speedy delivery of the first of three dozen F-16s Iraq has ordered from the US to effectively create an air force. But none of the warplanes, the first of which were ordered in 2011, are expected to arrive in Iraq until at least this coming fall.

But the alarming rise of Al Qaeda-affiliated militants across western Iraq, northern Syria, and into Lebanon could change the calculations of US lawmakers who have been reluctant to assist Maliki, some experts say.

At the same time, the anticipated assault of Iraqi forces on the Islamist insurgents still holding parts of Fallujah and Ramadi is likely to be closely watched in the US for hints of how Maliki intends to address the militant challenge, others say.

Maliki made a point of publicly calling on Iraqi forces not to attack residential areas of Fallujah, notes Wayne White, a former State Department Middle East intelligence official.

“Maliki must convincingly defeat the [Islamist extremists] in the current fighting – and without running amok in a way that results in unacceptably high Sunni Arab civilian casualties and great destruction,” says Mr. White, now an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute, writing on the Lobe Log blog.

Much of the blame for the return of pro-Al Qaeda militants in Iraq’s Sunni areas lies with Maliki, White says, noting that the government’s treatment of the Sunni Arab minority – including what have appeared to be trumped-up charges of “terrorism” against a number of prominent Sunni leaders – has driven some Sunnis into the arms of the extremists.

But if Maliki can build on the negative reaction of some Sunni Arab tribal leaders to the militants’ “power play” and resolve the confrontation without alienating the Sunni community, White says, the Iraqi leader could get a “second chance” to better integrate Sunnis into Iraqi politics.

Such an outcome could also prompt wary US lawmakers to approve more robust US support for Iraq in its battle with Al Qaeda-affiliated extremists.

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