Weapons Sales to Iraq Move Ahead Despite U.S. Worries
By MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT and ERIC SCHMITT
Published: December 28, 2011
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BAGHDAD — The Obama administration is moving ahead with the sale of nearly $11 billion worth of arms and training for the Iraqi military despite concerns that Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki is seeking to consolidate authority, create a one-party Shiite-dominated state and abandon the American-backed power-sharing government.
The military aid, including advanced fighter jets and battle tanks, is meant to help the Iraqi government protect its borders and rebuild a military that before the 1991 Persian Gulf war was one of the largest in the world; it was disbanded in 2003 after the United States invasion.
But the sales of the weapons — some of which have already been delivered — are moving ahead even though Mr. Maliki has failed to carry out an agreement that would have limited his ability to marginalize the Sunnis and turn the military into a sectarian force. While the United States is eager to beef up Iraq’s military, at least in part as a hedge against Iranian influence, there are also fears that the move could backfire if the Baghdad government ultimately aligns more closely with the Shiite theocracy in Tehran than with Washington.
United States diplomats, including Ambassador James F. Jeffrey, have expressed concern about the military relationship with Iraq. Some have even said it could have political ramifications for the Obama administration if not properly managed. There is also growing concern that Mr. Maliki’s apparent efforts to marginalize the country’s Sunni minority could set off a civil war.
“The optics of this are terrible,” said Kenneth M. Pollack, an expert on national security issues at the Brookings Institution in Washington and a critic of the administration’s Iraq policy.
The program to arm the military is being led by the United States Embassy here, which through its Office of Security Cooperation serves as a broker between the Iraqi government and defense contractors like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. Among the big-ticket items being sold to Iraq are F-16 fighter jets, M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks, cannons and armored personnel carriers. The Iraqis have also received body armor, helmets, ammunition trailers and sport utility vehicles, which critics say can be used by domestic security services to help Mr. Maliki consolidate power.
“The purpose of these arrangements is to assist the Iraqis’ ability to defend their sovereignty against foreign security threats,” said Capt. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman in Washington.
But Iraqi politicians and analysts, while acknowledging that the American military withdrawal had left Iraq’s borders, and airspace, vulnerable, said there were many reasons for concern.
Despite pronouncements from American and Iraqi officials that the Iraqi military is a nonsectarian force, they said, it had evolved into a hodgepodge of Shiite militias more interested in marginalizing the Sunnis than in protecting the country’s sovereignty. Across the country, they said, Shiite flags — not Iraq’s national flag — fluttered from tanks and military vehicles, evidence, many said, of the troops’ sectarian allegiances.
“It is very risky to arm a sectarian army,” said Rafe al-Essawi, the country’s finance minister and a leading Sunni politician. “It is very risky with all the sacrifices we’ve made, with all the budget to be spent, with all the support of America — at the end of the day, the result will be a formal militia army.”
Mr. Essawi said that he was concerned about how the weapons would be used if political tension led to a renewed tide of sectarian violence. Some Iraqis and analysts said they believed that the weapons could give Mr. Maliki a significant advantage in preventing several Sunni provinces from declaring autonomy from the central government.
“Washington took the decision to build up Iraq as a counterweight to Iran through close military cooperation and the sale of major weapon systems,” said Joost Hiltermann, the International Crisis Group’s deputy program director for the Middle East. “Maliki has shown a troubling inclination toward enhancing his control over the country’s institutions without accepting any significant checks and balances.”
Uncertainty over Mr. Maliki’s intentions, and with that the wisdom of the weapons sale, began to emerge even before the last American combat forces withdrew 11 days ago. Mr. Maliki moved against his Sunni rivals, arresting hundreds of former Baath Party members on charges that they were involved in a coup plot. Then security forces under Mr. Maliki’s control sought to arrest the country’s Sunni vice president, who fled to the semiautonomous Kurdish region in the north. In addition, Mr. Maliki threatened to release damning information on other politicians.
With these actions plunging the country into a political crisis, a few days later, Mr. Maliki said the country would be turned into “rivers of blood” if the predominantly Sunni provinces sought more autonomy.
This was not a completely unforeseen turn of events. Over the summer, the Americans told high-ranking Iraqi officials that the United States did not want an ongoing military relationship with a country that marginalized its minorities and ruled by force.
Last edited by newmonies; 12-30-2011 at 03:35 AM.
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