Iraq has asked the United States for new arms to beat back the dramatic resurgence of al-Qaeda-linked militants in a western province and would like U.S. troops to train its counterterrorism forces, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said in an interview Thursday.
The Iraqi leader said he provided the wish list after a phone call with Vice President Biden on Tuesday. U.S. officials said it might be easy to deliver those weapons, which include assault rifles and artillery, to Baghdad soon.
“Some is on hand, and we can supply it quickly,” a senior American diplomat said Thursday, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be candid.
The request for stepped-up U.S. assistance is adding urgency to a debate over the types of weapons that Washington ought to provide to Maliki’s government and the leverage that aid could give the United States.
Despite the stunning revival of the Sunni insurgency, with militants carrying out an intense wave of attacks over the past year and seizing control of key cities in Anbar province, Maliki said he had no regrets that his administration did not reach a deal with Washington that would have kept some U.S. troops in Iraq after the 2011 pullout.
“Since the American withdrawal, we’ve had a friendly relationship, but this strong bilateral relationship doesn’t mean we need American forces here,” a weary-
looking Maliki said in the interview, conducted in his office in Baghdad’s heavily barricaded Green Zone.
U.S. officials have watched Iraq’s soaring violence with alarm over the past year, as an insurgency that the American military took credit for decimating has reemerged as a powerful regional force. But they also have come to see the crisis as an opportunity to retain influence in Iraq, and they worry that if they’re unable to meet its urgent needs, Baghdad will increasingly turn to other countries for materiel.
“We’re at a point where there is an opportunity to reinvigorate the partnership,” said retired Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik, who led the command that trained and equipped Iraq’s security forces in 2008. “We ought to take that opportunity.”
The weapons Maliki has requested are a small piece of the massive list of defense items that Iraq is trying to buy from the United States. Baghdad is also seeking Apache helicopters, but the prospective sale has been snarled in Congress, where lawmakers have sought assurances that Iraqi security forces won’t use the aircraft to crush political opponents or crack down on dissent in Sunni communities.
Dubik said that such concerns are legitimate but that they also provide Washington with an opportunity to nudge Maliki to govern more inclusively, an objective that the Obama administration regards as vital in the run-up to parliamentary elections scheduled for spring. “I think we’re right in trying to get assurances that the equipment will be used properly,” he said. “Therein lies part of the opportunity.”
Since 2005, the Pentagon has processed military orders for the Iraqi government worth nearly $10.5 billion. Iraq has initiated other orders that, if approved, could raise that sum to nearly $25 billion, according to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service.
U.S. military officials say that keeping the Iraqi armed forces reliant on American weapons systems would give Washington leverage for decades and foster a relationship built during the Iraq war.
Because the U.S. defense export system is slow and sometimes stymied by politics, Iraq in recent years has begun to turn to Russia, South Korea and other countries that have more nimble military sales programs.
“Iraq has needs, and it also has resources,” a senior U.S. official told reporters in a recent briefing conducted on the condition of anonymity. “We don’t actually gain leverage over the Iraqis by withholding these systems. We tend to cede that leverage to our strategic competitors.”
Maliki said during the interview that he would support a new U.S. military training mission for Iraqi counterterrorism troops in Jordan, marking the first time he has expressed support for a plan that the Pentagon has been contemplating in recent months. U.S. military officials have not provided details on the scope or timing of such a training mission.
The Iraqi leader said he is “satisfied that we will achieve victory against al-Qaeda.” But he cautioned that the situation is complicated and intertwined with the sectarian conflict in next-door Syria.
“The whole region’s events are connected,” he said. “To solve the problem in Iraq, we cannot look at it in isolation from the other events in the region.”
Maliki deflected blame for the ongoing crisis in his country, saying the Sunni violence has been “exported” to Iraq by another Arab country, an apparent reference to Saudi Arabia.
“Al-Qaeda is the one using sectarian issues,” he said. “The purpose is to drag Sunnis and Shiites into fighting with each other.”
Maliki, a Shiite, said his government is making inroads with Sunni leaders in Anbar as it enlists their help in fighting the insurgents. Many of those leaders have come to see his government as sectarian and despotic, but they also dread the prospect of living in insurgent-held territory.
“We are going to use the sons of these provinces to take care of security in their provinces,” Maliki said. To do that, he added, trust “definitely” needs to be rebuilt.
The recent return of fighters from the Iraqi franchise of al-Qaeda to the streets of Fallujah and Ramadi did not come without warning. U.S. officials said the insurgent group began establishing sophisticated training camps in remote parts of Anbar last year.
“When we were fighting al-Qaeda groups here, those guys would never have been able to last more than 10 minutes,” the senior U.S. official said.
When the Iraqi military deployed unarmored helicopters to the area, they were attacked with machine guns. When ground troops attempted to close in, the insurgents ambushed them.
The spark was ignited in Anbar when an explosion in late December killed nearly the entire command corps of the Iraqi army’s 7th Division.
The attack prompted Maliki to take more-assertive action against militants in Anbar, and he ordered the dismantling of a protest camp in Ramadi. Tensions were stoked when security forces carried out a raid on the house of a prominent local member of parliament, which resulted in his arrest and the death of his brother.
That incident sparked a wave of local anger that resulted in the withdrawal of the army, allowing convoys of al-Qaeda militants to drive into cities largely devoid of security forces. Since then, Ramadi, the provincial capital, has been brought largely under the control of local tribal leaders allied with the government. Fallujah, meanwhile, remains held by al-Qaeda and allied groups.
Maliki said he does not intend to send armed forces into Fallujah, saying he wants to give the local tribes time to drive out the militants.
“We will get them outside the city,” Maliki said, adding that government forces have refrained from entering the cities because of the fear of civilian casualties. He said pro-government tribes have been given weapons to oust the militants, including AK-47 assault rifles and Russian PK machine guns.
Interview with Maliki
On Jan. 16, The Washington Post’s Loveday Morris sat down with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Here is an edited transcript of their interview, translated from Arabic:
MORRIS: Prime Minister, thank you for taking the time to meet me, I know it’s a particularly busy time. As we sit here the army surrounds Fallujah, we have tribesmen fighting al-Qaeda linked militants in Ramadi, a civil war across the border in Syria and elections just around the corner. How critical a time is this for Iraq?
MALIKI: There are different questions there, but all are connected to each other. The situation in Anbar and Iraq generally, is also connected to the situation in Syria, and the situation in Syria is also connected to the situation in Iran and Lebanon. The whole region’s events are connected. To solve the problem in Iraq we cannot look at it in isolation from other events in the region.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq was finished in 2008 and 2009 but they came back after the situation erupted in Syria. The base for fighting Al-Qaeda in Iraq is better than in Syria. Despite what some politicians say – they are lying – right now all the Iraqi people are fighting Al-Qaeda. As evidence of that, the tribes of Anbar decided to ask the government to fight Al -Qaeda and right now their sons are fighting Al-Qaeda. We are satisfied that we will achieve victory against Al-Qaeda, but the concern is there are some lines connecting Al Qaeda here to Syria. Still, we have achieved progress against them.
On the elections, we are working very hard to ensure the stability of them, and, if God wills, the date of the election will be on time. Two things will help us. The first is unity to fight Al-Qaeda. The second is the support of international community.
On Anbar, you have said you will not send the armed forces into Fallujah, is that still the case and are we likely to see a military effort by pro-government tribesmen imminently?
Yes, the tribes will get rid of Al-Qaeda by themselves. There is movement in Fallujah, but right now, Fallujah is under siege. We can enter Fallujah but we are afraid of civilian casualties. If we wanted, we could enter Fallujah in a day. We need to give Fallujah the time to be able get rid of al-Qaeda and expel them from the city, we will get them outside the city. We don’t want to bring any harm to our people in Fallujah.
If the tribes need anything, weapons, money, logistics. We will supply it.
What kind of military support has been given to the tribes?
Light weapons, AKs and PKCs, 12.5mm machine guns. We are not giving tanks and artillery. It’s not heavy.
These weapons, they are being used and being used successfully, plus we have the Iraqi army supporting them. In the difficult areas we have the army near. In any areas that the tribes cannot fight al-Qaeda we have counter terrorism there.
What support is Iraq receiving from the U.S. and what more would they like to see?
To build the Iraqi army and protect Iraqi sovereignty we need heavy weapons, fighter jets, helicopters, air defenses, this is in the long term. But right now, to defeat al-Qaeda, we need medium weapons, and we need intelligence cooperation. We need drones to scan the desert, and right now that’s gradually happening with America.
Can you give specific details? Has the U.S. pledged more support?
We’ve received only Hellfire missiles, which are being used to fight al-Qaeda. We’ve received one wave and have been promised another. The other weapons we have requested we have not received yet. The surveillance drones we have used them once or twice in the desert. There is intelligence collaboration which is very important for us.
What kind of intelligence is shared?
It’s tapping al-Qaeda communications, finding their camps and places on the ground, observing their routes over the borders. We work together on that field but we need more cooperation. We have many agreements with other countries to share information, but on the U.S. side we have the Status of Forces Agreement, under that framework we are exchanging more information than with most countries.
Do you wish you had done more to keep a U.S. military presence in Iraq, given the fact that al-Qaeda are strengthening and taking ground?
Now we have a strong army, the only thing we need is intelligence information, and that sharing already exists under our agreement with the U.S. There is no need for the US army on the ground, because we have our army.
So no regrets in not allowing U.S. forces to stay?
No. Since American withdrawal we’ve had a friendly relationship, but this strong bilateral relationship doesn’t mean we need American forces here.
In an interview in 2009 you declared that sectarian war was over in Iraq, things looked hopeful then. Do you still think that’s the case?
The sectarian war in Iraq was finished, but al-Qaeda brought it back and it was exported to Iraq by another Arab country. Al-Qaeda is responsible for bringing the sectarian issues to Iraq. Now the sectarian situation is very good and there is good relationship between Sunni and Shiite. Our problem is not between Sunni and Shiite, it’s with al-Qaeda itself. As evidence of that you can see those killed on the Sunni side are not less than the Shiite.
Al-Qaeda is the one using sectarian issues. It is trying to erupt sectarian issues. The purpose is to drag Sunni and Shiite into fighting with each other.
Is it not the case that as well as al-Qaeda you are also facing insurrection from the tribes themselves in Anbar?
There is no full tribe with Al-Qaeda, but members of the tribes, yes. Some of the tribes are divided, into for al-Qaeda and against. But the majority of the tribes in Anbar are against Al-Qaeda.
Do you not think more could be done to address disenfranchisement in the Sunni community? What is being done to do that? Are you reviving the Sahwa movement?
Our first priority is to fight al-Qaeda and the insurgency all over the provinces. Secondly, we are going to count on their sons, under the title of sons of Iraq and Sahwas. Thirdly, we are going to use the sons of these provinces to take care of security in their provinces.
After that we are going to provide services and infrastructure for provinces which are fed up with al-Qaeda control.
Could more not be done to take away al-Qaeda’s recruitment abilities by and bridging Shiite-Sunni divides?
I don’t like to hear Iraqi Sunni and Iraqi Shiite. The Sunni they trust that the government is not sectarian, it’s just some politicians that thrive on sectarian issues.
The evidence for this is that when we had the Shiite militas, Sadrists, in Basra, Karbala and Baghdad, the government stood against the Shiite militias, it showed the Sunnis we not a attacking the Sunnis, we are imposing the law.
I think this policy is the only way to keep the unity of Iraq, but I’m sorry that some politicians always erupt the sectarian issue. And Arab countries that neighbor Iraq use it, and I think those countries will face unrest because they also have Sunni and Shiite in their countries.
I believe Iraq is an unsuitable environment for sectarianism, except in some politics. Our tribes have both Sunni and Shiite, they are cousins, married, they have a good relations.
When do you expect Ramadi and Fallujah back in government control?
Right now Ramadi is in the hands of the government, there is local government there. But there are still some hideouts in Fallujah. These may take some time, but it’s almost over.
But your soldiers are still suffering losses.
Yes, up to now we lost 80 martyrs from army and police, and more than that from civilian side, and double this number from the insurgency.
You mentioned recruiting Sunnis into security forces, how do you plan to do that, doesn’t trust need to be rebuilt first?
Definitely. My plan is to take the army out of the provinces, as it says it should be in the constitution, and leave them to local police. The problem right now is that the local police are being infiltrated, and they are not ready. Now that the tribal men have come to fight in a powerful, honest way, that has led us to think that in the future we should rely on them.
We will form a professional security force from them. Those tribesmen fighting al-Qaeda, we are going to bring them and use them in the police to defend their province, and the army will go back to its place outside the city.
How closely are you in touch with the Obama administration on the current crisis? Have you spoken with Obama?
On my visit yes, I met with him, but Mr. Obama told me Mr. Biden is in charge of the Iraqi file. I’m always in touch with Mr. Biden, like 48 hours ago we talked on the phone with him twice. We are in touch, either directly or through the embassy.
Last time you spoke to Mr. Biden, what was discussed?
He told us how Americans feel relief over how the Iraqi army is dealing with demonstration places and the fight against al-Qaeda. The professional way of the Iraqi army has changed the image in the United States of the Iraqi army. He asked me to present a list of the weapons that Iraq needs fast to fight al-Qaeda. And we provided this list.
What exactly was on the list?
Light weapons, medium weapons, which we are going to use to counter the insurgency, some missiles to attack their hideouts and they are working on that.
Have you asked the U.S. for more training for the Iraqi forces?
We need training. Until now we’ve only talked about intelligence information and weapons, not training. We are going to ask for training, in some areas we need training, especially for our counter terrorism units.
Would that involve bringing U.S. trainers here?
Yes, bringing Americans to Iraq, or Iraqi soldiers could go to Jordan and train. A trainer could go to Jordan and come back and train the rest. We have experts, we have abilities in this field, but we want to increase our capability. We don’t mind asking for such a thing, to train our forces in counter terrorism.
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