Congress to Iraq’s Maliki: No Arms for a Civil War

Capitol Hill was ready to give Apache helicopters to Baghdad to help fight al Qaeda, but now senators worry the prime minister will use the weapons on domestic enemies.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki still hasn’t done enough to prove that he can be trusted with heavy U.S. weapons such as Apache helicopters, several top Senators told The Daily Beast.

As Iraqi army forces prepare to mount an offensive to take back control of the city of Fallujah from al Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), the Obama administration is in a full court press to urge Congress to allow the sale of dozens of Boeing AH-64 Apache helicopters the Maliki government has been seeking for years. Both the House Foreign Relations Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had been holding up the sales, out of concern Maliki will use them against his domestic political enemies. Senators in both parties also lament Maliki’s increasingly sectarian style of governing and his alleged cooperation with Iran to aid the Syrian regime.

The Daily Beast has learned that the House Foreign Affairs Committee has now dropped its hold on the Apache sales but one senior senator still refuses to allow it to go through – Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ). Congressional aides said Tuesday that Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns has been lobbying Menendez to release his hold on the sales and Burns has also been reaching out to other senators who have problems with Maliki. Maliki pressed Vice President Joe Biden to deal with congressional opposition to the Apache sales during his November trip to Washington.

Menendez said Tuesday he was reviewing a letter sent to him by Maliki outlining steps he is taking to govern more equitably and ensure American weapons would be used only for counterterrorism, but Menendez has not yet agreed to allow the Apache sales.

“Those have been held up by us until we got a more comprehensive assessment of how he’s moving forward and how he’s going to engage the Sunni minority,” Menendez said. “So we are reviewing that letter and that may very well be the process by which we will consider some of those sales.”

Menendez has also been a vocal critic of Maliki’s approach to the Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), an Iranian dissident group that was removed from the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations in 2012. The group has suffered deadly attacks in their home at a former U.S. military base in Iraq, allegedly perpetrated with help from the Iraqi armed forces.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has sped up the sales of other weapons in order to help Iraq repel the growing al Qaeda presence. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Monday the U.S. will deliver this spring a new batch of Hellfire missiles, ten ScanEagle surveillance UAVs, and later this year, eight Raven surveillance UAVs.

Several other senators said Tuesday they would now support American sales of the Apache helicopters to Iraq, but they insisted such sales be met by Maliki with a new strategy to include Sunni leaders in his government, engage Sunni groups in Anbar province, and address their grievances.

“It’s fine to [sell Iraq Apaches] and help them with intelligence, but also Maliki has got to come to some kind of accommodation with the Sunnis, he’s got to do some outreach,” saidJohn McCain (R-AZ), who spoke with Burns on the matter.

McCain blames the lack of U.S. influence on Maliki on the Obama administration’s failure to negotiate an agreement to leave some U.S. troops in Iraq post-2011. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Monday that was a joint U.S.-Iraqi decision, but McCain said Iraqi leaders badly wanted U.S. troops to stay.

“That’s where our influence, by us leaving, is missing and is needed very badly in this situation,” he said. “Anybody who tells you [our withdrawal] was because of the Iraqis is lying to you.”

McCain and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) are scheduled to speak with Maliki on the phone Wednesday, Graham told The Daily Beast. Graham said the U.S. should not sell Maliki F-16 fighter planes, which Iraq also wants, because those can only really be used for external threats, not counterterrorism.

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“I don’t know about the F-16s but it’s certainly time to do the Apaches. Now is the time to show the Iraqis that even though we don’t have troops there, we’re supportive of their country,” said Graham. “Maliki has got to prove to the world and his people he’s not a sectarian leader. He’s got to come up with a military strategy with the Sunni tribal leaders to evict al Qaeda… This is a defining moment for him and this is an opportunity to show his ability to govern to the United States.”

The administration has not yet formally notified Congress about F-16 sales to Iraq, so that transaction is not expected any time soon.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) told The Daily Beast Tuesday he agrees with McCain and Graham.

“We need to provide equipment but we also need to ensure it’s used for the purpose it is intended. Also, there’s got to be something done on the governance side inside Iraq by Maliki,” said Levin. “He’s got to find the ways politically to bring in those Sunnis that are willing to work as part of an integrated government… Al Qaeda is a major part of the problem but Maliki is part of the problem too.”

Experts said the Obama administration could place some restrictions on the new weapons it was sending to Iraq. "We do need to be aware of the potential that Maliki will use the aid we just delivered in a way that will produce a greater threat of a Sunni uprising,” said Jessica Lewis, research director at the Institute for the Study of War. “We have given him this opportunity but there needs to be an explicit commitment about how this aid package will be used.”

Eli Lake contributed to this report.