It’s an awkward relationship between US and Iraqi leaders. At the end of 2011, after the two sides couldn’t agree upon the conditions for a continued US troop presence in Iraq, President Obama abruptly pulled forces out of the country leaving the still youthful Iraqi government to manage a difficult security situation. Now the Iraqi delegation is in DC, trying to convince US leaders to speed up the sales of weapons systems to make up for the security vacuum that has existed ever since.
Iraqi president Nuri al-Maliki, who’s meeting today with President Obama, wasn’t bashful about this request in an editorial he wrote for the New York Times printed Tuesday:
We are not asking for American boots on the ground. Rather, we urgently want to equip our own forces with the weapons they need to fight terrorism, including helicopters and other military aircraft so that we can secure our borders and protect our people. Hard as it is to believe, Iraq doesn’t have a single fighter jet to protect its airspace. The United States is our security partner of choice, so we have been working with the U.S. government and American defense firms to procure the equipment we need.
The mention of fighters is clearly a reference to Iraq’s purchase of F-16s, which was originally signed back in 2011 and continues to be paid out. A senior Obama administration official, talking with reporters about the first couple of meetings between the two sides, said that Iraq had recently made a $650 million payment and that delivery is on schedule for next fall.
As to other weapons the Iraqi government seeks, including Apache helicopters, ground vehicles and ordinance, the official wouldn’t comment.
“I won’t really discuss the specific equipment requests, but all I will say is that we’re working very closely with the Congress on this,” the official said. “So the Iraqis have asked for weapons systems from us. We’ve worked very closely with them and we support those requests, and we’re working with the Congress through those as appropriate. We’ve made some progress.”
Iraq’s government is clearly ready to cough up some serious money for additional systems. Officials signed a deal with Russia worth roughly $4 billion last year. That could be a nice opportunity for US contractors increasingly focused on international sales to make up for domestic budget cuts.
But the administration has taken a very cautious approach to Middle East weapons sales recently, unsure of exactly how some of the tools might be used and concerned about instability. Iraq, which has its fair share of clashes between government and militia forces, poses a difficult case for agencies.
The senior Obama administration official emphasized that Iraq is looking for more than just the systems, but also training. That training won’t occur in Iraq, as US trainers won’t be sent to the country, the official said.
“It’s not all about weapons, it’s not all about equipment, but – part of it is about equipment, but most importantly, it’s about this overall strategic approach, strategic approach and recruiting tribes and making sure that they have the mass of the population on their side.”
In some ways the Iraq experience is a preview of what will one day be tense conversations with Afghanistan’s leaders. The US toes the line between responsibility for a government that it largely built with its own hands, and maintaining its distance as Iraq tries to establish its independence.
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