WASHINGTON (Reuters) — The Obama
administration is considering expanding its support to Iraqi forces as
they fight off a renewed al Qaeda threat, but Washington's ability to
significantly increase security assistance to Baghdad will remain
U.S. officials say they are in discussions with the Iraqi
government about training its elite forces in a third country, which
would allow the United States to provide one modest measure of new
assistance against militants in the absence of a troop deal that
allows U.S. soldiers to operate within Iraq.
No further details were immediately available about where that might
take place or how many troops it might involve.
Reluctance to further empower Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki or put
American boots on the ground constrains U.S. support for Iraq as it
battles militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, an
al Qaeda affiliate, in Anbar province, and seeks to reverse a
striking surge in violence across the country in the last year.
The United States is sending missiles, surveillance aircraft and
other gear that may help Iraqi forces rebuff al Qaeda in the western
province, a Sunni Muslim stronghold.
But Washington also wants Maliki, a Shi'ite, to do more to reach out
to minority Kurds and Sunnis who accuse him of fanning sectarian
The conflict in Anbar is the latest in a string of events pitting
Maliki against Iraqi Sunnis, many of whom resent the Shi'ite
domination that has followed the U.S.-led ouster of Sunni leader
Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Colin Kahl, a former senior Pentagon official specializing in the
Middle East, said the U.S. military's ability to conduct overt
activities in Iraq was extremely limited, but that the Obama
administration was likely providing the Iraqi government with
intelligence to help them target al Qaeda.
"As we do so, we have to be mindful that we are not empowering
Maliki's bad behavior, and we need to be careful not to do anything
that makes it look like we are taking sides in a sectarian fight,"
Beyond such modest support, and despite growing U.S. fears that the
war in Syria is fuelling a regional al Qaeda comeback, U.S.
officials say their hands are largely tied in Iraq.
Secretary of State John Kerry made clear last weekend the Obama
administration has no appetite for sending U.S. troops back.
"This is a fight that belongs to the Iraqis," he said. "We're not
contemplating putting boots on the ground. This is their fight, but
we're going to help them in their fight."
And without a Status of Forces Agreement, which provides a legal
underpinning for stationing U.S. soldiers overseas, the United
States can hardly conduct overt military activities in Iraq.
Maliki, too, would be loathe to be seen inviting back U.S. troops
whose presence many Iraqis saw as an occupation force.
Since 2011, when the Obama administration abruptly pulled U.S.
soldiers from Iraq after failing to reach a troop deal with Maliki's
government, the upheaval of the Arab Spring and the war in Syria
have helped push Iraq from the center of U.S. foreign policy
As the Pentagon seeks to wind down the war in Afghanistan, and Kerry
pursues diplomatic deals to address Iran's nuclear ambitions and the
Israeli-Palestinian dispute, increasing bloodshed in Iraq has not
altered that calculus.
The reluctance of the Obama administration — and of Maliki himself — to revisit the years of U.S. military involvement in Iraq has
dramatically curtailed U.S. influence there.
Since the departure of U.S. forces in 2011, the Office of Security
Cooperation-Iraq, attached to the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, has
become the anchor of U.S. security assistance for Iraq. At least 100
Pentagon employees there oversee military sales to Iraq and advise
But some covert activities can take place. The Iraqi government
invited U.S. special forces to return to provide counterterrorism
and intelligence support to local forces, according to a report in
The New York Times.
Some in the U.S. Congress, including influential lawmakers such as
John McCain, warn of Maliki's autocratic tendencies and close ties
with Iran. They complain he has continued to allow Iran to send
military assistance to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad across Iraqi
airspace and has not lived up to promises to protect Iranian
dissidents in Iraq.
Ken Pollack, a former White House and intelligence official who was
a leading advocate for the 2003 war with Iraq, said the current U.S.
focus on the return of al Qaeda, with its possible intent to strike
the West, overlooked the true sectarian and political roots of
recent conflict in Iraq.
"Sending weapons isn't going to fix the problem," he said. "It's
going to force the Maliki government to rely on force."
Pollack and others have urged the administration to condition
security assistance on conciliatory steps by Maliki, perhaps by
bringing in minority leaders into his government.
After Maliki made a plea for increased military sales in a visit to
Washington in November, the administration has been working to speed
up delivery of military equipment, including Hellfire missiles and
An Iraqi request for Apache attack helicopters has not yet moved
forward, largely because of congressional concerns. Congress has
approved the sale of F-16 fighters to Iraq, but they are not
expected to be delivered until fall.
(Reporting by Missy Ryan; editing by Alistair Bell and Ken Wills)