An AH-64D Apache Longbow Block III, the newest variant of the Apache helicopter. The U.S. wants to send Apache attack helicopters to Iraq, along with hundreds more Lockheed Martin-made Hellfire missiles and more than 50 new surveillance drone aircraft. (Photo courtesy of PEO Aviation)
WASHINGTON — As sectarian violence nudges Iraq toward a political abyss, its government’s fight against brutal Sunni fighters is becoming a boon for American arms manufacturers.
Iraq’s Shia-run central government is in the midst of a bloody battle with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a group that was excommunicated recently by al-Qaida’s core leadership. As Iraq’s government fights to remain in power, the Obama administration made clear Wednesday it is sending the Middle East nation ample new firepower to do just that.
Brett McGurk, deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq and Iran, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that because the administration feels “vital U.S. interests are at stake in Iraq,” it is ready to send Baghdad new Boeing-made Apache attack helicopters, hundreds more Lockheed Martin-made Hellfire missiles and more than 50 new surveillance drone aircraft.
“Iraq’s lack of armored helicopters was a glaring example. Iraqi pilots, over the course of 2013, often flew thin-skinned helicopters towards ISIL camps defended by ... machine guns and anti-aircraft platforms,” McGurk said. “The result was helicopters shot up and crews (many of whom we had trained) suffering grievous wounds. This situation was not sustainable, and the [government of Iraq] requested our urgent assistance.”
After a back-and-forth with the House panel and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the administration secured lawmakers’ okay to send new Apaches.
“While this is not an immediate remedy to the current problem, they will provide the ISF with the most effective platform possible for denying ISIL a safe haven in the remote western deserts of Iraq,” McGurk said.
The State Department official, fresh off a trip to Iraq last week, told the House committee that Iraqi forces “have recently proven effective at deploying Hellfire missiles against remote ISIL targets from a Caravan aircraft.”
“The ISF have three Caravans equipped to launch Hellfire strikes, but overall supply of Hellfire missiles was not adequate to the threat and number of targets they had located and surveyed,” he said.
So the Obama administration wants to give Iraq more Hellfires. A lot more, McGurk revealed Wednesday.
“Thanks to close coordination with this committee in recent months, this situation has begun to change. We delivered 75 Hellfire missiles in December,” McGurk said, adding officials “have notified Congress of a potential sale of up to 500 more.”
The aim of the arms shipments, as McGurk put it, “is to ensure that ISIL can never again gain safe haven in western Iraq to train, stage, and plan [attacks].”
To meet those goals, the administration believes the U.S. should also sell Iraq’s government more drones to conduct surveillance of contested areas.
“Consistent with this strategy, we will deliver 10 Scan Eagle surveillance UAVs this spring, and 48 Raven UAVs later this year, all of which, when used in combination with other platforms, can provide regular surveillance of the Jazeera region and the Iraq-Syria border,” he said.
Boeing also makes the Scan Eagle. AeroVironment manufactures the Raven.
McGurk told the lawmakers that the administration is doing things outside of sending arms to quell Iraq’s latest sectarian uproar and protect U.S. interests there. U.S. officials, he said, are “encouraging the [government of Iraq] to develop and execute a holistic strategy to isolate and defeat ISIL over the long-term” that “fuses political, security, and economic components.”
He acknowledged the ISIL is gaining strength, adding its “most precious resource” are foreign recruits brought in specifically to carry out suicide-bomb attacks on Shias.
“Its militant ranks have blossomed. … The group is now able to carry out approximately 40 mass casualty attacks per month,” he said. “The civil war in neighboring Syria only further strengthens this group.”
McGurk said Iraqi government officials, for the first time, have acknowledged they made mistakes last year that allowed the excommunicated al-Qaida offshoot to grow into its current lethal form.
While the State Department official touted the arms shipments and the Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts to help boost Iraq’s Shia-led government, the panel’s GOP chairman said more must be done -- including by embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
“Iraqis should know that their relations with Iran and the slow pace of political reconciliation with minority groups raise serious congressional concerns,” Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., said Wednesday. “While he may not be up to it, Maliki must take steps to lead Iraq to a post-sectarian era.
“The Iraqi government is far from perfect. And only the Iraqis can control their future,” Royce said. “But if we don’t want to see an Iraq with large swaths of territory under militant control, and we shouldn’t, we must be willing to lend an appropriate hand.”
The former al-Qaida affiliate’s newfound “independence is a reflection of its unprecedented resources, including weapons, personnel and cash and its resulting operational strength,” Royce said.
And in a chilling revelation, the House chairman said the group is not just a threat in the middle East.
“This is a threat to Iraq, but also us,” Royce said, revealing the group is “actively recruiting individuals capable of traveling to the U.S. to carry out attacks.”