When the Iraqi foreign minister arrives in Washington this week, among his top requests will be for the White House to overcome objections in Congress to selling his country advanced Apache helicopters the Iraqis say they need to fight terrorists within their borders.
Iraq’s top diplomat, Hoshyar Zebari, will meet with Secretary of State John Kerry on Aug. 15. Zebari’s trip comes just weeks after a daring and successful military assault on the Abu Ghraib prison resulted in the release of more than 500 suspected extremist militants. The jailbreak reversed years of work to roll up al Qaeda’s leadership in Iraq during the U.S.-led counterinsurgency campaign known as the surge.
The U.S. government has notified Congress in recent weeks of its intention to sell Iraq $4.7 billion worth of military equipment, but none of those sales include the top item on Iraq’s shopping list, the Boeing AH-64 Apache helicopters. The House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have refused to allow the sale of the helicopters to date.
“The committee continues to carefully review all proposed arms sales to Iraq in order to ensure that such transfers support U.S. national security interests in the region,” a House Foreign Affairs Committee spokesman told The Daily Beast. Two administration officials confirmed that until the committees sign off, the U.S. government won’t be able to complete the arms deal.
The State Department is negotiating with the leaders of those committees behind the scenes to alleviate concerns about the sale. Committee leaders are worried the Iraqi government will use the helicopters to go after their domestic enemies, not just suspected terrorists. Also lawmakers are convinced that Iraq still allows Iran to fly arms over Iraqi airspace to aid the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The administration’s argument is that America should provide Iraq with the capability to fight terrorism inside its borders, which is in both countries’ interest.
“The Iraqis desperately need armored helicopters to deal with this threat,” one U.S. official told The Daily Beast. “We are now in the process of working with the Congress to explain the strategic necessity of the sale, the long-term value these contracts have for our relationship, and to address their questions regarding how the helicopters will be used.”
The arms deals also could be a way to maintain dwindling U.S. influence in Iraq, which could purchase arms from U.S. competitors if Washington doesn’t come through.
“They want to buy Apaches from us, but they can also buy Russian helicopters, and we would have very little oversight over that,” the official said.
The Apache issue is linked to new bilateral discussions over how the U.S. can help Iraq increase its terrorism-fighting capability in the wake of the Abu Ghraib prison break and several other extremist successes in Iraq this year.
The talks are being led on the Iraqi side by Falah Fayadh, the national security adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and Tariq Najm, a political adviser to the prime minister; and on the U.S. side by Ambassador Robert Beecroft and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brett McGurk, according to a senior Iraqi official familiar with the negotiations.
The Iraqi official said that in recent weeks the administration has sought to speed up the sale of the Apache helicopters and has begun to discuss the prospect of sending in more intelligence officers to Iraq to help security services find and target the growing scourge of al Qaeda in the country.
“The United States cannot sit back and watch an al Qaeda fiefdom rise up in Iraq,” the Iraqi official said. While Maliki’s representatives have quietly pressed for the additional support, the United States has just begun to consider the offer seriously, the official said.
A U.S. official acknowledged the urgency of dealing with the deteriorating security environment in Iraq and increasing the intelligence cooperation between the two countries before the situation there gets any worse.
“Following the Abu Ghraib incident, everybody recognizes and acknowledges that this is a problem now,” the official said. “This is a very common interest in trying to degrade these networks.”
Iraq’s new ambassador to Washington, Lukman Faily, has been working the halls of Capitol Hill making the argument for the Apaches. In an interview last month, he denied that Iraq is allowing Iran to resupply the Syrian regime and said Iraq understood the back and forth between lawmakers and the administration over the Apache sales.
“There’s a game between the State Department and the Congress, but we are willing to go through that process and try to influence for the benefit of both countries,” Faily said.
In a statement to The Daily Beast this week, Faily said Iraq and the U.S. are on the same side in the war against extremists and therefore Washington should provide the weapons Baghdad seeks.
“We share the same objectives and determination to fight against and defeat terrorism,” he said. “In order to achieve these common strategic imperatives, Iraq’s military forces must have the capabilities to secure our borders and protect our airspace.”
Some Iraq experts in Washington argue that the Abu Ghraib prison break simply gives the Iraqi government another argument for weapons they really want for the purpose of consolidating power in the still fragile state.
“Iraq’s desire for arms is for one purpose: regime preservation,” said Ramzy Mardini, adjunct fellow at the Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies. “The attack at Abu Gharib has given them more effective talking points when approaching Washington for security assistance.”
The Obama administration wants to improve its security assistance to the government of Iraq ,and the common threat of terrorism is real, he said, but Apache helicopters might not be the right solution.
“The Obama administration is operating on old software, seeing influence in the region heavily through the security-assistance track,” said Mardini. “That made sense in gaining local allegiances in a global struggle with the Soviet Union. But with popular domestic upheavals plaguing the Middle East, selling American arms to regimes trying to stay in power is very risky policy.”