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.