Iraq eyes US to fight insurgents
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s desire for US military help to fight the Sunni insurgency could prove tricky for both Baghdad and Washington,
writes Salah Nasrawi
Nearly two years after the United States withdrew its last troops from Iraq, Baghdad is seeking Washington’s help for its fledgling security forces to fight Sunni insurgents, highlighting the difficult choices facing the Shia-led government of Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki amid the spiralling violence and rising death toll.
The plea to sell Iraq weapons, including Apache helicopters, and to send back intelligence resources to Iraq to help its security services, comes amid the escalating spill-over from the Syrian conflict, including weapons and fighters pouring from Syria into Iraq.
Sunni Arab insurgency groups, including Al-Qaeda, have stepped up their attacks against Iraq’s Shia-led government in recent weeks, raising fears of a return to full-scale sectarian strife in the sharply divided and war-ravaged country.
In daring tactics aimed to paralyse Iraq’s economic infrastructure, insurgents recently attacked key oil pipelines and sea port facilities.
On Saturday, a truck bomb exploded at Iraq’s main commercial port at Umm Qasr near an oil-exporting terminal on the Arabian Gulf. The blast damaged an out-of-service Iraqi ship anchored there and wounded four people.
Attackers also blew up a key oil pipeline linking the Kirkuk oil fields to the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean late on Friday, disrupting crude oil exports. Since the start of the year the strategic pipeline has been bombed some 30 times.
The bombings of the economic facilities that handle Iraq’s imports and oil exports followed an attack on the Abu Ghraib prison facility last month to free more that 500 convicted terrorists, some of them sentenced to death.
The aim of the prison break, which was claimed by Al-Qaeda, was apparently to cast doubt on Iraq’s security forces’ ability to protect key facilities such as jails that host terrorists.
Dozens of people were killed this week in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities in blasts, car bombings and gunfire attacks. Some 34 people were killed and more than 100 people were wounded on Thursday in at least eight blasts.
The killings were the latest in a wave of violence across the country following massive Sunni protests against the government that started in December. Since the start of the year, attacks using multiple car bombs have become an almost daily occurrence.
More than 3,000 people have been killed in the violence during the past few months, raising fears that Iraq could see a new round of widespread sectarian bloodshed similar to that which brought the country to the edge of civil war in 2006 and 2007.
In recent weeks, the government has launched a security sweep in the three Sunni-dominated provinces of Anbar, Salaheddin and Diala to try to round up suspected militants.
Hundreds of suspects have been arrested in the crackdown, which the government says will continue until Al-Qaeda in Iraq is defeated.
Government officials say Al-Qaeda militants are using the 600km long and porous Iraqi-Syrian border to send weapons and men into Iraq and build footholds in Sunni-populated provinces.
Al-Qaeda’s presence has become strongest in parts of these provinces, and the group’s fighters are now believed to be in control of most of the towns in the area, which forms a Sunni demographic belt around Baghdad.
Terrorists can then infiltrate from these areas into Baghdad itself with explosive-laden vehicles, ready to be exploded in mostly Shia-populated neighbourhoods.
According to a report in the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper, some Iraqi officials estimate that there are at least 30,000 Al-Qaeda fighters in this belt, most of them from Syria.
Al-Qaeda, now known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Syria), is now the largest of the loosely aligned rebel groups in Syria. Its fighters are believed to be concentrated mostly in Syria’s provinces neighbouring Iraq.
On Saturday, Al-Maliki warned that weapons provided by various countries to the Syrian rebels and foreign fighters battling to topple Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad were now ending up in Iraq.
He said that the movement of weapons and fighters was adding to the violence hitting Iraq.
However, many Iraqis and Al-Maliki’s political opponents blame Al-Maliki, who is also the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and the minister of interior, for the failure of the security forces to put an end to the insurgency.
Some have suggested that the security apparatus in Iraq is defective, mostly because Al-Maliki has filled top security posts with his cronies and supporters who are inefficient or corrupt.
Experts also view Iraqi forces as lacking basic training and intelligence. They note that the Shia-led security forces are rife with sectarianism and lack cooperation from locals in Sunni areas.
Now the dramatic surge in the violence and fears that the threat of the Sunni insurgency have grown to the point where it could overturn the government have prompted Al-Maliki to look for assistance from two unexpected sources – the Iraqi Kurds and the Americans.
Reports in the Iraqi media suggest that the government is seriously considering resorting to Kurdish forces to help secure towns in the so-called disputed areas north of Baghdad.
Some have also reported that Kurdish Peshmergas fighters might also be asked to help protect Baghdad’s Green Zone, which hosts government headquarters and foreign diplomatic missions.
Kurdish officials have said they are ready to send Peshmergas to launch joint operations and fight side by side with the Iraqi security forces to combat terrorism, but a decision to move the troops still hinges on a political agreement.
Although some progress has been made to ease tensions between the two sides over a host of crucial disputes, the Baghdad government and the Kurds still harbour mutual suspicions and mistrust, and any military cooperation could only be tentative.
The security deterioration has also forced Al-Maliki to think the unthinkable and seek military and security help from the United States, whose military presence provoked more resistance than it suppressed during its 10-year occupation of Iraq.
Last week, he dispatched Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari and two of his most trusted aides to request the United States to provide assistance in combating Al-Qaeda infiltrators in Iraq.
While Zebari handled the public diplomacy in Washington, the behind-the-scenes talks were conducted by Falah Fayadh, national security adviser to Al-Maliki, and Tarik Najm, a political adviser to the prime minister.
According to US media reports, the Iraqi officials were seeking a military and security package that would include Apache helicopters and the prospect of sending intelligence officers to Iraq to help the security services target Al-Qaeda operatives in the country.
Some reports also suggested that Iraq was asking the United States to send drones that could be used in counter-terrorism operations, including the fight against Al-Qaeda.
The Iraqi request came as a surprise because Al-Maliki has always championed the 2008 deal with Washington that ended the US occupation of Iraq and boasted that Iraqi forces were capable of defending the country alone and of confronting Al-Qaeda.
Under the pact, Washington withdrew all its forces from Iraq in December 2011, but left a small force to protect the US embassy in Baghdad and a few military trainers. The Iraqi government also approved a Strategic Framework Agreement with the United States that aimed at ensuring cooperation, including military supplies and training.
It is unclear, however, if Washington will provide Iraq with the requested military capabilities and whether certain benchmarks will be attached to the deal.
At a joint press conference with Zebari, US Secretary of State John Kerry said that the United States would help Baghdad deal with the spill-over from the Syrian conflict, including weapons flowing out of Syria into Iraq and combating the effects of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The US administration has already agreed to sell Iraq $4.7 billion worth of military equipment, including F-16 fighters and an integrated air defence system that includes radar, missiles, guidance systems, training and support, but none of these sales have yet been shipped to Iraq.
There seems to be a sharp bureaucratic and partisan division among the administration officials and lawmakers about Iraq’s military purchases.
While some officials believe that Washington should not sit back and watch Al-Qaeda entrench itself deeper in Iraq, others fear that the American arms could fuel the Sunni insurgency and even fall into Iran’s hands.
On Monday, Zebari announced that Al-Maliki planned to travel to Washington, probably next month, for further discussions of the weapons sales and counter-terrorism cooperation.
The urgency of Al-Maliki’s visit indicates that tough wheeling and dealing is going on and that the prime minister’s direct involvement is needed in order to conclude a deal, probably beyond the military purchases.