The Obama administration slammed a powerful Senate panel for blocking the sale of advanced weaponry to Iraq, accusing the lawmakers of denying Baghdad the armaments it needs to defeat the al Qaeda militants who have conquered the key city of Fallujah.
The intensifying fighting in Fallujah, the scene of some of the bloodiest combat of the Iraq War, has highlighted a bitter disagreement between the White House and the Democratic-controlled Senate Foreign Relations Committee about what types of weaponry to provide to the Iraqi government. The panel, along with the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, needs to approve all arms sales to foreign countries.
Baghdad desperately wants dozens of Apache attack helicopters, which would make it easier for the Iraqi military to find and destroy military targets inside Fallujah and prevent al Qaeda from sending reinforcements to the city. Iraq has been pushing for the helicopters for years, but Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez of New Jersey has bucked the White House and barred Baghdad from obtaining the Apaches. On Tuesday, the administration derided that move as shortsighted and dangerous.
''Time and again, the SFRC has blocked the delivery of this support," a senior administration official told Foreign Policy. "It's hard to imagine why some members think now is a good time to deny the Iraqi government the weapons it needs to effectively take the fight to al Qaeda."
Menendez and his allies on Capitol Hill see things very differently, of course. Congressional opponents of the arms sales believe that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a religious Shiite, has fueled his country's sectarian divisions failing to give Iraq's Sunni minority a greater role in the country's central government or a larger share of Iraq's lucrative oil revenues. They also worry that Maliki might use the Apaches against his domestic enemies rather than saving them for the fight against al Qaeda.
The House Committee on Foreign Affairs placed holds on the Apache deal in the past, but Congressional sources told Foreign Policy that the panel's chairman, Republican Ed Royce of California, was now willing to allow the delivery of Apaches to Iraq. That leaves Menendez's Senate panel as the last impediment to an arms deal that could help turn the tide in Fallujah.
"When al Qaeda is newly resurgent in Iraq, no one can understand why Menendez continues to drag his feet on providing Baghdad Apaches to kill these guys," said one senior Congressional aide.
Another aide expressed confusion by Menendez's increasing penchant to break with the White House, as he did on the Iran nuclear deal. "I'm not sure who his allies are but his enemies seem to be largely within the Democratic camp," said the aide.
Menendez, speaking to MSNBC, signaled Tuesday that his own opposition to the weapons deal might be softening. The lawmaker said he'd recently received a letter from Maliki with written promises to improve the treatment of the country's Sunnis and better include them in Iraq's political process.
"The Committee on Foreign Relations has jurisdiction over arms sales in terms of approving them, and those have been held up by us until we got a more comprehensive assessment of how he's moving forward and how he's going to engage the Sunni minority," Menendez told MSNBC. "We're reviewing that letter and that may very well be the process by which we'll consider some of these sales."
Even if Menendez signs off, however, it could still takes months or years for Iraq to receive the Apaches. 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.