The top senator on the Armed Services Committee is signaling a willingness to send more military assistance to Iraq as the government in Baghdad struggles to recapture areas seized by al Qaeda and other Islamic extremists.
Sen. Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the panel, in prepared remarks to be delivered late Thursday afternoon said he would only support selling attack helicopters to Iraq if Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pledges to use them only against al Qaeda and other violent extremists, not his Sunni political enemies.
“The question is whether the Maliki government would use them only against violent extremists, and whether we receive credible assurances that such weapons will be used to target Iraq’s real enemies, and not to further sectarian political objectives,” he planned to say. “With credible assurances, it would be appropriate to provide such assistance.”
Spiraling sectarian violence and a resurgence of al Qaeda in Anbar province of Iraq has Congress considering sending more military assistance. While the House Foreign Affairs Committee has signed off on sending Apache helicopters and other forms of military weapons to Iraq, Sen. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who chairs the Foreign Relations panel, has said he will block any weapons transfer to Iraq until Maliki promises not to use them on anyone except al Qaeda and other extremists.
Critics on both sides of the aisle blame Maliki, who is heavily influenced by Iran, for creating an opening for al Qaeda by cracking down on the Sunni minority and failing to give them any role in his government. Maliki even accused his Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi on terrorist charges, forcing him to flee and become a fugitive.
The developments has sparked a new round of blame for the Obama administration's failure to negotiate an post-war agreement that allowed a residual number of troops to remain in the country for peace-keeping purposes.
Earlier Thursday, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, called on the Obama administration to refocus its attention on Iraq and stressed the need to maintain a long-term commitment o securing U.S. interests there.
“Precious blood was spilled, and national treasure was expended helping Iraqis remove a brutal dictator and repelling terrorist elements determined to stamp out human freedom and dignity,” Boehner said, in prepared remarks. “That progress is now threatened and, in the case of Fallujah, it’s been reversed.”
“The United States has, and will continue to have, vital national interests in Iraq,” he said. “We must maintain a long-term commitment to a successful outcome there. And It’s time that the president recognize this, and get engaged.”
Boehner also lamented the full withdrawal of U.S. forces at the end of 2011.
“A status of forces agreement with Iraq should have been agreed to,” he said, “and this administration failed to deliver.”
While Congress weighs next steps, the Iraqi government has halted – at least for now – an assault to retake territory in the country's Anbar province that was overrun by al Qaeda and other extremists last week. Vice President Joe Biden Wednesday urged Maliki to work with Sunni tribal leaders and gain their support before launching an offensive that could produce a large number of civilian casualties.
Levin, in his floor speech, planned to come to the Obama administration's defense, noting that President George W. Bush signed the agreement with the Maliki government to withdraw all U.S. troops by the end of 2011, after Iraq refused to grant immunity for some U.S. soldiers in Iraqi courts.
“[T]he decision to reject an ongoing U.S. troop presence after 2011 was Iraq’s, because of Iraq’s refusal to assure our troops would have protections from Iraqi courts,” Levin planned to say in the remarks.
Menendez received a three-page letter last week from Maliki responding to his concerns, and on Tuesday the State Department said it would work to provide more answers. The Obama administration wants to sell up to 30 Apache helicopters to Iraq, but building them could take several years so is proposing the idea of leasing them up to 10 aircraft in the meantime.
Delivering the helicopters could take until April and training Iraqi pilots how to fly them would also take time. The Obama administration this week plans to send more Hellfire missiles in the Spring, adding to the 75 it already provided in December. In the coming weeks, the U.S. also will hand over 10 surveillance drones with 48 more coming by the end of this year.