The U.S. is sending more heavy-duty weapons to Iraq… but is it too late?


Iraqi families fleeing violence in the northern Nineveh province gather at a Kurdish checkpoint on Tuesday. Suspected jihadists seized Iraq’s entire northern province of Nineveh and its capital Mosul, the country’s second-largest city. AFP PHOTO/SAFIN HAMEDSAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images

Iraq’s ambassador to Washington attended a ceremony in Fort Worth, Texas, on Thursday, marking the delivery of Iraq’s first F-16 fighter jet by defense contractor Lockheed Martin Corp. The arrival of the planes are heavily anticipated in Iraq, which remains locked in a fierce fight with extremist insurgents.

“This will provide us some capability to provide air support,” Amb. Lukman Faily said in an interview beforehand. “Iraq as a nation, as a state, we need these planes.”

If only it were that simple. While Iraq officially took possession of the first plane, it isn’t expected to arrive there until this fall as part of the first delivery. And it is expected to take even longer for Iraq to begin using them. Iraq is still preparing its airbase for operations in Balad, some 40 miles north of Baghdad, Faily said. It also has only a small number of pilots trained to fly the F-16s, although more are in training now.

In many ways, that’s a microcosm for life in Iraq since the U.S. military completed its withdrawal of forces in 2011. The country first announced its desire to buy 18 F-16s through the Pentagon’s foreign weapons program that year, and followed that up with an additional order of 18 planes in 2012. Combined, they will cost some $1.9 billion. As Iraq has awaited their arrival, however, insurgents with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria took control of the western city of Fallujah in January and the northern city Mosul on Tuesday, underscoring their violent expansion across a broad swath of territory in Syria and Iraq.

ISIS, among the most extreme Islamist groups involved in the Syrian civil war, has consolidated its gains as senior officials in Washington and Baghdad continue to discuss what equipment the U.S. will send, and when.

In January, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) lifted his objection to a $6 billion deal in which the Pentagon will deliver dozens of Apache attack helicopters to Iraq to help them fight the insurgency. The deal had been delayed for months, but even with the block lifted,  the helicopters aren’t expected to arrive in Iraq until this summer.

Washington and Baghdad also struck another $1 billion deal in which light-attack planes, surveillance balloons and up-armored Humvees will be delivered to Iraq. The agreement was approved by the State Department in May, and included 24 Beechcraft AT-6c Texan II aircraft, turboprop planes that can carry guided weapons and provide reconnaissance and surveillance.

The deals come as some critics question whether it is wise to continue outfitting the Iraqi military. Iraqi troops were said to have fled their posts in Mosul on Monday, and ISIS fighters were seen taking U.S.-made Humvees they commandeered back over the border into Syria.

The weapons sales also follow criticism of Iraq for the use of barrel bombs, crude, cheap explosive devices that can be dropped from helicopters and other aircraft. The bombs have been used to target insurgents, but lack accuracy and have reportedly killed civilians, especially in Fallujah.

Faily said he was aware of the barrel bomb reports, and that Iraq would deal with concerns that have been raised. But he also underscored the threat the Iraqi government faces from ISIS.

“Please bear in mind,” he said, “that we’re in a vicious fight against terrorism.”

Dan Lamothe covers national security for The Washington Post and anchors its military blog, Checkpoint.
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Dan Lamothe · June 10