The U.S. should send Apache attack helicopters, F-16 fighters and other advanced weaponry to Iraq but only if the Shiite-dominated government of President Nouri al-Maliki guarantees that the arms will not used in a sectarian campaign against Sunni rivals for influence, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said Thursday.
“With credible assurances, it would be appropriate to provide such assistance,” Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a Senate floor speech.
“The issue here is not whether such aircraft would help Iraq fight violent extremists — they would,” Levin said. “The question is whether the Maliki government would use them only against violent extremists, and whether we receive credible assurances that such weapons will be used to target Iraq’s real enemies, and not to further sectarian political objectives.”
The Obama administration, rattled by images of Al Qaeda flags flying over the flashpoint towns of Fallujah and Ramadi, announced Monday that the U.S. was speeding up the delivery of Hellfire air-to-ground missiles and reconnaissance drones to Iraq.
In his White House visit last November, Maliki asked for Apaches and F-16s to bolster his forces against inroads by fighters of the Al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which is also active in Syria.
In his speech, Levin also renewed debate with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and others over the failure at the end of 2010 to reach agreement with Maliki for the continued presence of a U.S. follow-on force. The lack of an agreement led Obama to order the total withdrawal of U.S. forces.
“We could have left a residual force behind, it could have been done,” McCain said Tuesday. “This administration wanted everybody out and they got everybody out. And we predicted that without that residual force – not for fighting but to assist the Iraqi military — that this whole thing would unravel. It has.”
Levin countered that “While there was disagreement in the administration over the size of a residual force, what decided the issue wasn’t how many troops would remain. Rather, it was the Iraqi government’s refusal to agree to legal protections for residual U.S. troops, whatever their number.”
“In the absence of such protections, it was the opinion of our military leaders that no U.S. forces should remain in Iraq,” Levin said.
Secretary of State John Kerry has ruled out sending U.S. troops back to Iraq, saying that the battle to clear Fallujah and Ramadi was a “fight that belongs to the Iraqis.”
In a Tuesday appearance at the National Press Club, Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army’s chief of Staff, backed up Kerry.
“We’re trying to coach them as best we can on these issues,” Odierno said of the Iraqis, but “This is certainly not the time to put American troops on the ground. I think it’s time for them to step up and see what they can do.”