The stunning conquest of Fallujah and Ramadi by al Qaeda fighters has reignited the debate about whether the White House should have left combat troops in Iraq. But that argument obscures what may be the original sin of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq two years ago: Washington's refusal to provide Baghdad with the F-16s and Apache attack helicopters that could turn the tide in the bloody fight to recapture the key cities.
The Iraqi military has surrounded Fallujah with ground troops and armored vehicles, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki indicated Monday that he was prepared to order an all-out assault on the city if tribal fighters there failed to expel the al Qaeda fighters on their own. In a jab at the White House, a senior Iranian military official, Gen. Mohammad Hejazi, said Tehran was prepared to give Baghdad weaponry and military trainers to help in what could be weeks of grinding house-to-house, street-to-street fighting.
Current and former U.S. officials say that F-16s and Apaches would change the situation on the ground by giving Iraqi commanders the ability to destroy al-Qaeda targets from the air and prevent reinforcements from reaching the cities. Baghdad has spent years pressing Congress and the White House for permission to buy dozens of the aircraft. So far, though, Washington has said no.
"It's beyond shortsighted," a U.S. military official with multiple tours in Iraq said in an interview. "Airpower can be a game-changer, and we're damaging our own interests by leaving the Iraqi army to slug this out on the ground. If we see them as an ally, we should treat them like one."
The reason Iraq hasn't received the aircraft and helicopters is that some powerful lawmakers simply don't trust Maliki to only use them against al Qaeda fighters and other militants. Congressional opponents of the deal instead worry the Iraqi prime minister might one day use them against domestic enemies from the country's restive Sunni minority. The Obama administration supports Iraq's request for Apaches, but powerful members of Congress have so far refused to allow the deal to move forward.
At press time, a spokesman for Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez of New Jersey, one of the lawmakers that have blocked the deal in the past, didn't respond to a request for comment about whether the lawmaker still opposes the Apache sale. Bernadette Meehan, a White House spokeswoman, said Baghdad was hoping to buy American weapons to "increase its capability to counter terrorist threats."
"The administration supports this and we are working with Congress on providing additional military equipment to Iraq for this effort," she said.
Still, the ongoing U.S. refusal to ship warplanes and attack helicopters to Iraq means that the country's air force basically exists in name only. Shunned by Washington, Baghdad has signed agreements to buy dozens of Russian Mi-35 helicopters, but most of them won't arrive in Iraq until later this year. For the moment, Iraq mainly relies on propeller-driven Cessnas. Baghdad has equipped a few of them with Hellfire missiles, but the planes seem more appropriate for a private airstrip in the United States than for use in a war zone.
The Maliki government desperately wants to upgrade its arsenal, and Baghdad signed a contract in 2011 for 18 F-16 warplanes and inked another one in 2012 for 18 more. None of the planes have been delivered, though the State Department says the first wave of F-16s should arrive in Iraq this fall, nearly three years after the first deal was signed.
Baghdad also wants dozens of Apache attack helicopters, which carry both Hellfire missiles and powerful chain-fed cannons. The senior military official said the aircraft would allow the Iraqi military to carry out relatively precise attacks that could destroy al Qaeda targets inside Fallujah without causing significant numbers of civilian casualties. Iraq has been pushing for the Apaches for years, but it hasn't gotten any of them yet either.
Maliki used his October visit to Washington to ask the White House to prod Congress to sign off on the Apache deals, but there's no sign of movement. That may change in the wake of Fallujah's fall to al Qaeda. Maliki's critics worry about his treatment of the Sunnis and his close relationship with Iran, but many lawmakers are even more concerned about the prospect of significant parts of Iraq coming under militant control. That means they may be willing to give Maliki the Apaches he's wanted for years. The Iraqi prime minister is facing a tough fight on the ground at Fallujah and Ramadi. Here in Washington, though, the tide could quickly start to turn.