NPR Story
2:45 pm
Fri December 27, 2013

Two Years After War's End, US Sends Arms To Iraq

Originally published on Tue January 14, 2014 5:15 pm

To help the Iraqi government fight the current insurgency, which is at levels not seen since the worst days of the war, the Obama administration is sending missiles and surveillance drones to the country.

The New York Times broke the story and reports that the move follows Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s request when he came to Washington last month.

Al-Maliki said Iraq needs help to fight al-Qaeda-backed militants who are gaining territory in Iraq and also in neighboring Syria.

Michael Gordon, the New York Times reporter who co-wrote the story, joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to discuss the U.S.’s involvement in Iraq.

Guest

  • Michael Gordon, reporter for the New York Times.
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Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

And it appears that today's bombing in Beirut that killed a pro-Western politician was connected to the ongoing civil war in Syria. That civil war is also spilling into Iraq, which has just seen one of its most violent years since the U.S. invaded in 2003.

The New York Times broke the story this week that the U.S. is now sending missiles and surveillance drones to help Iraq fight al-Qaida affiliates there. Reporter Michael Gordon joins us from NPR in Washington. And Michael, first of all, we're talking about different countries here. But the bombing in Lebanon today, the civil war in Syrian and what your reporting on Iraq, are these connected?

MICHAEL GORDON: Well, I think the main connection is that the conflict in Syria continues to get worse and it's beginning to overlap its borders. And so you really have a confrontation in the Middle East. Notwithstanding the Obama administration's emphasize on pivoting or rebalancing towards Asia, the Middle East is really the crisis zone. And there are a lot of American interests at stake there.

HOBSON: Well, is Syria the main reason that the U.S. is sending, as you report, more military assistance to Iraq?

GORDON: It's a factor but I don't think it's the main reason. To a certain extent, a lot of this was foreseeable. If you had talked to the Iraqi military or to the American military for that matter in 2011, they would have told you that it would - it's important for a limited number of American forces to remain under some sort of status of forces agreement, much like the administration is trying to do now in Afghanistan.

But because of politics within the Iraqi government and political considerations in Washington, that didn't happen, and so there's a bit of a vacuum. And what's happened is that allowed al-Qaida in Iraq to basically regroup, to grow in strength, to become a factor in Syria. And now, from its base of operations in Syria, it's launching suicide bombers into Iraq.

HOBSON: So the base of operations is in Syria?

GORDON: Well, it extends across the border. They don't recognize the border. And they have operations in the Djazira desert in Iraq, in Natoa(ph) province in Iraq. In Syria, the border means nothing to them. They're just a presence in that part of the world.

HOBSON: Well, can the kinds of weapons that you report the Obama administration is willing to send over help fight this al-Qaida affiliate in Iraq?

GORDON: Well, they certainly fill a gap. I mean the Iraqi military and police force is very large in numbers and reasonably capable. But what they really lack is a real air force, and they lack the capability to deliver air-to-ground munitions in a time-urgent way. So if you have a terrorist group that's maneuvering around the Western Desert or operating in the North or - they have camps now, which would have been unthinkable during the days when the Americans were there, they wouldn't have lasted a nanosecond, they're not able to respond to that threat very quickly. It's a long drive out there.

They don't have F-16s jet. They don't have attack helicopters in any numbers. So, basically, this is kind of a jerry-built solution. What the Americans are doing are giving Hellfire missiles, which are going to be strapped under the wings of a Cessna-type turbo prop plane, which is then going to go out in desert, and using American-supplied intelligence to try locate this al-Qaida affiliate. And the United States is also providing drones with limited range to help refine the targeting. It's important to note, this isn't a gift. All these items are being sold to the Iraqi government.

HOBSON: And it was a done deal in Washington that this would happen. I know that there has been some concern about sending certain weapons or aircraft to Iraq because there's fear that the Maliki government in Iraq will simply use it to tamp down any political opposition.

GORDON: The main issue is the Obama administration has really set to sell Apache helicopter gunships to the Iraqi forces. But it's been hung up in the Senate because of precisely the concerns you note. However, the Iraqis have now turned to the Russians and procured kind of a poor man's Apache gunship from the Russians. And that raises the question of what the United States is gaining by not providing the helicopter gunships. If they can get from the Russians and the Russians can gain influence in Iraq, that certainly doesn't work to the advantage of the United States.

HOBSON: Well, you're in Washington. Tell us about the debate that's been going on there about this.

GORDON: Well, the debate is, is really the following: Even though this is, first and foremost, I think, a military problem, it has a political dimension, which is that there are tensions between the Sunni population and Ambaran in the North and the Shia-dominated Maliki government. And al-Qaida is taking advantage of these tensions and the failure of Maliki to share power with the Sunnis. And so if you really were trying to attack this problem in a sensible way, you'd probably provide more military support than the United States is providing now. But also, the Iraqi government would have to do more. They would have to reach out to the Sunnis and genuinely include them in a power sharing arrangement. And the American Congress sees this, and it's because of Maliki's reluctance or tardiness in taking steps to include the Sunnis that it's been reluctant to approve the helicopter gunships. It's really all of the piece.

HOBSON: Michael, if you go back to 9/11 and the reason that the United States used to get involved in Afghanistan, it was that it didn't want to allow a nation to become basically a terrorist breeding ground. It sounds like what you're saying is that that's what has now happened to Iraq, or at least it is happening to Iraq.

GORDON: Well, not merely Iraq but also Syria. I mean, you're asking an important question. There are not a lot of places in the world where al-Qaida affiliates are immune from American drone attacks or American airstrikes, certainly not Waziristan or Yemen. Yet, the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria and in Iraq and some of these al-Qaida leaders, who have prices on their heads because of past attacks they have mounted against Americans in Iraq, is immune from that American force.

And, you know, the Iraqi foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, actually suggested that American-operated drones be employed to go after this target. But that's too much of a step for the Maliki government to take, at least explicitly, at a time when there are elections is coming up in the spring. So, I think this is likely to linger as a problem and probably get worse.

HOBSON: You're saying it would be too much of a step for the Maliki government to take because they don't want to be seen as inviting drones in from the Americans, that there's still a very strong nationalist sense in Iraq.

GORDON: Yeah. I think for Maliki to be seen - he might welcome it privately. But to be seen as inviting in the application of American force on his territory would hurt him with some of his Shia base. Certainly, the Iranians wouldn't appreciate it. And so he's not asking - and the Obama administration, for its own reasons, because it - recall that President Obama has claimed to bring the Iraq war to a responsible end. Well, it has a political incentive not to reopen the conflict, so to speak, because that would raise questions about what the White House regards as one of its signature foreign policy accomplishments. So these political factors in Baghdad and Washington also shape the environment.

HOBSON: Michael Gordon of The New York Times, joining us from Washington. Michael, thanks so much.

GORDON: All right. Thank you.

HOBSON: This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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