An Iraqi federal policeman stands guard as Shiite pilgrims march to Karbala for Arbaeen in Baghdad on Dec. 19. (Khalid Mohammed/AP)
As the Iraqi government struggles to contain the exploding violence that slaughtered more than 8,000 civilians in 2013 — which the United Nations says is the highest level of violence since 2008 — Baghdad is looking to the United States for help.
According to a report in the New York Times, Iraq has requested 10 relatively low-tech ScanEagle drones along with 48 Raven drones in order to track al-Qaida fighters who have been operating with impunity in the vast expanses of Anbar providence and in Western Iraq, which shares a border with Syria.
All of the drones will be delivered in 2014.
Seventy-five Hellfire missiles were also delivered to Iraq last week, the paper reported.
The fighting in Syria has allowed al-Qaida to gain a foothold in the ungoverned spaces where the Assad regime has lost control, and Islamist fighters flush with foreign funding have taken control of a large part of the previously secular rebellion there.
The chaos in Syria has in turn allowed al-Qaida to push back into Iraq, where Sunnis at odds with the Shia-led government in Baghdad have turned a blind eye to their presence, or have been intimidated into silence.
In response, the Baghdad government of Nouri al-Malaki — while not asking for armed drones operated by the United States or other American assistance — has beefed up its requests for material support.
In July, the U.S. announced over $4 billion in Foreign Military Sales to Iraq that included everything from infantry carriers to ground-to-air rockets.
The Pentagon’s request to Congress included $2.4 billion for 681 Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and 40 truck-mounted launchers, Sentinel radars, and three Hawk anti-aircraft batteries with 216 Hawk missiles.
These systems “will provide Iraq with the ability to contribute to regional air defenses and reduce its vulnerability to air attacks and also enhance interoperability between the government of Iraq, the US, and other allies,” the Pentagon wrote at the time.
The United States is also planning to begin delivering F-16 fighters to Iraq late next year.
In July, Defense News reported that the deal “included 50 Stryker infantry carriers, 12 helicopters, and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of maintenance and logistical support for Iraq’s thousands of American-made military vehicles that have been languishing under the breakdown of the Iraqi logistics system in the wake of the December 2011 American withdrawal.
“While the sale of 50 General Dynamics-made nuclear, biological and chemical Stryker reconnaissance vehicles worth about $900 million may have raised the most eyebrows, a source with knowledge of the negotiations between American and Iraqi military officials said that the real concern for both parties was the $750 million, five-year logistics contract that would cover the maintenance on thousands of American-made vehicles. The vehicles include BAE Systems’ M88A1 recovery vehicle, the M88A2 Hercules, M113 infantry carrier, Howitzers, and AM General-produced Humvees.”
Whether low-tech and short-range drones and infantry vehicles can make much of a difference in Iraq’s new struggle with al-Qaida and an increasingly angry Sunni minority may be unlikely without reforms and outreach to aggrieved populations. But it does mark a shift in the fight against a resurgent al-Qaida, and a new path for cooperation between Washington and Baghdad.