The Iraqi government is actively seeking armed drones from the U.S. to combat al Qaeda in its increasingly violent Anbar province and, in a significant reversal, would welcome American military drone operators back into the country to target those militants on its behalf, according to people with knowledge of the matter.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite government has for the last several months struggled to stem the violence in Iraq's western reaches, particularly in the Sunni-dominated Anbar province, site of some of the heaviest and bloodiest fighting of the decade-long Iraq war. Some of the instability in western Iraq is attributed to fighters arriving from Iraq's war-torn neighbor, Syria.
Iraq has long sought drones for surveillance and reconnaissance purposes and has begun to receive some from the U.S. in limited numbers. But the nature of the fight the Maliki government confronts in western Iraq is such that officials say Baghdad is looking not only for better reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities, but also for more robust, lethal platforms. Iraq has been unwilling to accept American military personnel in the country in any operational form, but the willingness to revisit that policy appears now to be shifting. A spokesman for the Iraqi Embassy declined to comment on the issue of allowing American military personnel into the country to conduct drone operations, but acknowledged that the U.S. and Iraq share a "common enemy" in al Qaeda.
"Iraq's view is that all available tools must be utilized to defeat this threat, and we welcome America's help in enhancing the capabilities we are able to bring to bear," the spokesman said.
That kind of welcome would mark a sea change of sorts for Washington's on-again, off-again relationship with Baghdad. The Obama administration withdrew all of its troops in December 2011 after contentious talks with the Maliki government broke off without a guarantee of legal immunity for the American forces. President Barack Obama and Maliki have since clashed over Baghdad's close ties to Iran and refusal to prevent Tehran from flying weapons bound for Syria through its airspace.
Still, Washington has been loath to entirely sever the relationship. The Iraqi government has sought and received billions of dollars in American military assistance to build its armed forces and to counter militants operating inside the country. Washington has sold more than $14 billion in gear and equipment to Iraq over the last five years, including Apache attack helicopters, M1A1 tanks, F-16 fighter jets, Hellfire missiles, small arms, and a raft of small aircraft, some of which provide surveillance capabilities. In return, the U.S. has demanded that Iraq focus on "a holistic picture," as one U.S. official put it, and has pressed Maliki to make political concessions to Iraq's minorities, strike agreements to share more of the country's oil, and do more to stop the weapons flows to Syria.
But the Iraqis want more. Specifically, they want armed drones, like the Predators or Reapers Washington uses to target al Qaeda fighters and other militants in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere. While selling the Iraqis such systems outright would likely be a political non-starter, at least some officials from the same government that once demanded the withdrawal of all U.S. troops have switched their tune and now want U.S. personnel to come back to Iraq to operate the unmanned aircraft if that's what it would take to obtain the capability.
"There is more willingness to have a discussion" about having American trainers and technicians return to the country to support and operate armed drone systems, said a senior Iraqi official, speaking anonymously due to the sensitive nature of the matter.
"We are after a stronger capability," the official said. "We want attack capability."
Baghdad's policy shift would come after national elections in Iraq last month, and any idea that Baghdad would allow American troops, even in small numbers, back into the country to conduct missions could have significant political implications in the future. There are currently about 200 U.S. military personnel in Iraq and all of them are assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Some personnel fall under the Office of Security Cooperation there, working on counterterrorism training and other programs. But none of the personnel working in the country currently has the authority to conduct operations inside Iraq.
Pentagon officials said they could not comment on the matter. A spokeswoman for the National Security Council, Bernadette Meehan, said such a proposal is not under active consideration. "We have not received a formal request to operate armed drones over Iraq," she said in an email. "Nor is there debate in the administration about diverting armed drones over Iraq or planning to do so."
The arrangement under discussion in Washington and Baghdad would raise a bevy of issues surrounding the operation of such drones, such as who exactly would be giving the operational orders, how the missions would be flown, and whether American service personnel or the Iraqis would be in charge of pulling the trigger.
"I don't know that we'd want the U.S. Air Force taking orders," said Andrew Shapiro, who served as the assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs until last year. But, he said, it's a "creative idea" that could help the Iraqis while at the same time mitigating concerns about the proliferation of armed drones and the possibility they could be used for the wrong purposes. Shapiro noted that the U.S. still hasn't approved Turkey obtaining an armed Reaper drone, something it has sought for the last couple of years.
"It's not a crazy idea, but one that would require a lot of work to make a reality," he said. "The question is, could you come up with an agreement that would satisfy what the Iraqis are looking for but also address concerns on the Hill and elsewhere."
There remains the possibility that the U.S. could approve such a plan but maintain a covert operation in Iraq run by the CIA. A U.S. official said the U.S. government is looking to expand cooperation with the Iraqis under the existing "Strategic Framework Agreement" signed in 2008 in terms of doing more information sharing, additional training, and other advising. But there is no plan to provide armed drones to the Iraqis or provide U.S. personnel to Iraq to operate such systems, the official said.
Still, if Washington and Baghdad pursued such a plan, it's likely the two countries would not have to revisit the troubled Status of Forces Agreement over which the two failed to reach agreement some years ago. The Iraqi official said there is reason to think the existing agreement between the two countries, known as the Strategic Framework Agreement, could be interpreted to allow American troops to operate inside the country.
As violence in Iraq has reached high levels in recent months, the Iraqi government has been pressing the U.S. to provide as much gear and equipment as possible. Since 2008, the U.S. has sold or is in the process of delivering C-130 cargo planes, Bell helicopters, Cessna aircraft, and Beechcraft King Air aircraft designed for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. The U.S. has agreed to provide as many as 500 Hellfire missiles, only about 100 of which have been delivered so far, and Washington has also sold the Iraqis hundreds of thousands of small arms and ammunition.
James Dubik, a retired Army three-star who led the American military command to train the Iraqi military between 2007 and 2008, has long supported helping the Iraqis generally. But Dubik said providing the Iraqis with more lethal capabilities raises a host of questions.
"On one hand, I think the administration is correct to believe that most of the problems in Iraq are not hardware problems; they are more to do with the political and security strategy and that the Maliki government has contributed to part of the problem," Dubik said. "I can understand the hesitancy."
Still, he said, the resurgence of al Qaeda in the region and the war in Syria pose broader questions that may force Washington to seek new ideas.
"Even if Maliki isn't the best partner, we should take advantage of his willingness to ask for our help for our own self-interest," he said. "Then we should use that as leverage to help the Maliki government and use that to push for more inclusion of Sunnis."
Meanwhile, the administration recognizes the demand for unmanned aerial vehicles generally by its allies. It is currently reviewing its export policy so it could accelerate the transfer of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities with an eye to broadening the government's ability to sell or otherwise provide the equipment to foreign governments. That has become especially true in the current era, in which the Obama administration appears reluctant to get involved in other countries' security problems and yet recognizes the need to give those allies the capabilities they need to address security issues on their own.
"If we truly want partners to step up, then we have to look very seriously at equipping them with 21st-century tools," Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Greg Kausner said at an event at the International Institute for Strategic Studies on April 23. "It's very much a balance; I think we are carefully considering and weighing the options now."
Kausner added that it's important to find the balance between the inherent risks of providing to allies the unique capabilities of ISR platforms -- long "loitering" over targets, real-time targeting, and "persistent presence" -- and the need to provide "a vital tool" to countries to help them fight their own battles. "I think we have to grapple with the realities of both assertions," he said.