Iraq Needs Weapons But Can It Keep Them?

Iraq Needs Weapons But Can It Keep Them?

Congress plans to re-evaluate Iraq’s request for several big-ticket items — including Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles — after withholding approval for several months because lawmakers worried that former Iraqi leader Nouri al-Maliki could use the weapons against his political opponents or that the arms could fall into the hands of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, which captured equipment this summer after defeating Iraqi forces.  

With the new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi — a Shiite — promising to run a more inclusive government offering roles for minority Sunnis and Kurds, the time is now right to reexamine Iraq’s needs, a congressional aide told Foreign Policy.

The weapons’ list includes as many as 175 M1A1 Abrams tanks; 146 Stryker anti-tank guided missile vehicles; 50 Stryker nuclear, biological, and chemical reconnaissance vehicles; and a number of Bradley fighting vehicles. The Pentagon and the State Department vetted Iraq’s request before sending it to Congress early this year.  

In the normal course of business Congress would have approved the request in March, but spring came and went without any action, according to a defense industry source. Lawmakers’ willingness to re-evaluate the weapons sales doesn’t guarantee Congress will sign off on them. And even if approved, the weapons are unlikely to reach Iraq in time to make a difference in the current battle against the Islamic State, both congressional and industry sources said. 

Supplying new weapons to Iraq and refurbishing its poorly maintained war stocks has become an urgent priority for the Obama administration after nearly half the Iraqi Army that was trained and equipped by U.S. forces before 2011 — or about 24 brigades out of 50 — unraveled this summer in the face of the Islamic State’s brutal onslaught. U.S. military advisers and trainers are getting the Iraqi army ready to mount a serious offensive next year to retake territory from the militant group.

Soon after the Pentagon and State Department sent Iraq’s request to Congress in the first quarter of fiscal year 2014, the Islamic State began making serious inroads from neighboring Syria into Iraq, seizing control of Fallujah and Ramadi in January. Reports started surfacing about Iraqi security forces abandoning their posts and leaving behind their U.S.-provided weapons as they fled for safety.

"That was a moment of concern for many," the congressional aide said. As the Iraqi government began reeling under Islamic State attacks, the Obama administration didn’t make a strong push in Congress to win approvals for the weapons either, the aide said. 

But with Abadi replacing Maliki and the U.S.-led military campaign having momentarily halted the Islamic State’s progress, Congress is more inclined to reconsider the Iraqi request, the aide said. "We’re now at a point where the smoke is beginning to clear."

The U.S. has been Iraq’s largest weapons supplier since the 2003 invasion and the subsequent rebuilding of the country’s armed forces. Iraq also has entered into deals with Russia, South Korea, and the Czech Republic for jet fighters, jet trainers, and attack helicopters, according to an October report by the Congressional Research Service.

Before withdrawing from Iraq in 2011 the U.S. began beefing up Iraq’s military capability and, as of last year, had committed to selling Baghdad about $10 billion in weapons, including F-16 jet fighters, M1A1 Abrams tanks, anti-aircraft systems, and fast-attack patrol boats through the Pentagon’s Foreign Military Sales program.

More recently, the Obama administration has accelerated the sale of thousands of Hellfire missiles. Congress has moved quickly on approving them too, making sure the weapons get to the fight against the Islamic State as quickly as possible.

In the last month, the Obama administration informed Congress of its plans to sell $1.2 billion worth of tank ammunition, spares, maintenance services, and precision weapons to boost the country’s military capability under the Foreign Military Sales program.

That program is operated by the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency, which acts as an agent between American defense companies and foreign buyers with U.S. military officials based in embassies abroad promoting American weapons. The agency funds itself through commissions earned on foreign sales.

Once a foreign government makes a request for U.S. weapons, it’s vetted by the Pentagon and State Department before it’s sent to Congress for approval. Typically administration officials seek an informal approval in private from lawmakers before sending a formal notification to Congress, which is public, of a proposed sale.

Congress has approved several batches of arms sales to Iraq. The U.S. delivered the first batch of 140 refurbished Abrams tanks in 2012 in a deal valued at about $860 million, and the first of 36 F-16 jets — valued at about $3.6 billion — was delivered in July this year, according to the Congressional Research Service.  

As many as 70 of the first batch of 140 Abrams tanks were destroyed or fell into disrepair as the Iraqi Army fought the Islamic State in Anbar province this summer, former Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul Qader Obeidi said in an interview with Foreign Policy. Militants may have also captured a few, he said.

Today, Iraq has only about 40 usable tanks in its inventory, said Obeidi, who served as the defense minister from 2006 to 2010 and later as military advisor to Maliki until 2012. Obeidi is doubtful that the U.S. plan to mount an offensive against the Islamic State early next year and retake Nineveh province and the city of Mosul is a realistic one. It may take U.S. forces a year to retrain Iraqi troops, Obeidi said.

The U.S. is ramping up training of Iraqi forces and President Barack Obama agreed to a request from Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. Central Command, to double the number of U.S. trainers and advisers in Iraq to 3,100.

As part of that effort, the Pentagon also is seeking to boost the Iraqi army’s capabilities ahead of the battle against Islamic State.

The Pentagon is expected to ask Congress to approve delivery of a large batch of Humvees, mine-resistant ambush-protected armored vehicles, communications gear, and small arms as part of its $1.6 billion effort to train and equip nine Iraqi Army brigades and three Kurdish Peshmerga brigades, according to a person familiar with the proposal. While these items will be paid out of U.S. taxpayer funds, weapons requested by Iraq including the Abrams tanks, Stryker and Bradley vehicles, if approved by Congress, will be paid largely by Iraq.

Details of the Pentagon’s $1.6 billion request won’t become public until the Defense Department’s comptroller’s office sends the information to lawmakers later this week, Pentagon spokesman Navy Cmdr. Bill Urban said.  

Although the off-the-shelf weapons and vehicles the Pentagon plans to ask will likely make their way to Iraq much faster than the Abrams tanks, Strykers and Bradleys that Congress is preparing to examine, there may still be delays, the congressional aide said.

"I wonder if there will be a significant time lag for even the equipment they need right away," the aide said about the humvees, armored vehicles and weapons.