The Cable

Congress Clears Apache Sale to Iraq

The Senate has paved the way for Baghdad to buy dozens of powerful Apache helicopters, handing a major victory to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as he battles an emboldened al-Qaeda insurgency.

The weapons sale, which the Obama administration strongly supports, had been held up by Sen. Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and other powerful lawmakers because of concerns that Maliki could use the equipment for an internal crackdown on Iraq's various minority communities. Menendez's committee has now agreed to the sale because the State Department adequately addressed his concerns, according to a Senate aide familiar with the matter.

The move clears the way for Baghdad to lease six Apache attack helicopters and buy 24 more, and includes training, logistical support and equipment. The total price tag is estimated at more than $6.2 billion.

Iraq has wanted the helicopters for more than a year, but Maliki's government has stepped up its lobbying campaign in recent months because of his country's intensifying war with the al-Qaeda militants who recently conquered the key city of Fallujah. Maliki used a recent meeting with Vice President Joe Biden to personally ask for his help in winning over lawmakers like Menendez.

Still, the equipment won't come immediately. The leased helicopters aren't scheduled to arrive in Iraq until the summer and the purchased Apaches haven't even been built yet. Unfortunately for Maliki, the war against al-Qaeda shows no sign of ending anytime soon.

Since 2005, the U.S. has sent more than $14 billion worth in equipment and training to Iraq. In the past year, deliveries have included hellfire missiles, C-130J aircraft and a Rapid Avenger surface-to-air missile battery. On Sunday, Vice President Joe Biden spoke to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and pledged support to Iraq in its battle against al Qaeda militants.  The call came as shootings and car bombs killed 13 people across the country.




National Security

Senate Foreign Policy Chief Pushes Back Against New Allegations of Misconduct

One of the Senate's most powerful lawmakers, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez of New Jersey, forcefully denied new allegations that he'd improperly gone to bat for a pair  of Ecuadorian bankers accused of embezzling money as their bank imploded.

It was not the first time the chairman was forced to stamp out rumors of a federal investigation into his actions. During his press briefing in New Jersey, Menendez referenced past allegations of misconduct and criticized the media for relying on anonymous sourcing.

"A year after a false smear campaign was launched against me, once again we see anonymous sources," Menendez said. "I wish we had these sources quoted. We seem to have gone to a journalistic level where just anonymous sources brings everyone to a conclusion about these ridiculous allegations."

The allegations against the senator stem from an NBC 4 New York investigation into his ties with William and Roberto Isaias, brothers convicted in absentia for embezzling millions from Filanbanco, an Ecuadorian bank. According to the report, the Justice Department is looking into Menendez's efforts to help the fugitive bankers avoid extradition to Ecuador.

In the mid-90s, the Isaias brothers ran Ecuador's largest bank. They were sued in 2009 by Quito for allegedly embezzling funds and moving them to Florida where they live. The attorney for the brothers, Xavier Castro Munoz, denied the accusations and identified his clients as victims of political persecution. Menendez's office reportedly made calls and letters to federal agencies on their behalf, actions Menendez defended on Friday.

"In this particular case my office made standard inquiries on behalf of the Isaias family because we have every reason to believe they have been victims of political persecution in their native country of Ecuador," he said, "including specifically confiscation of media outlets that they own, which were critical of the government.

Federal investigators are also examining Menendez's relationship with Salomon Melgen, a campaign donor and Florida ophthalmologist. Last year, he denied allegations that he improperly assisted Melgen by intervening in a Medicare-billing dispute and working to revive a dormant port security contract in the Dominican Republic.

Beyond that, he was also subjected to spurious prostitution allegations in the Dominican Republic produced by the conservative news site, The Daily Caller. Those insinuations collapsed under the weight of media scrutiny.

A spokesman for Menendez disputed that the chairman's tenure has been marked by controversy and highlighted the committee's central role in high-profile foreign policy issues like helping the Obama administration build support for potential military strikes against the government of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad after the dictator used chemical weapons against his own people. The spokesman also highlighted Menendez's role in helping to renew the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and passing new embassy funding legislation.

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