Aides to Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., say they have been trying since last summer to receive assurances from the White House that any usage of attack helicopters in Iraq could be tracked to ensure those weapons are used responsibly. (Mandel Ngan / Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Aides to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Robert Menendez are sharply criticizing the Obama administration, dubbing its inability to engage constructively on sending weapons to Iraq as “shocking.”
Administration officials jabbed Congress on Thursday for what they described as an unwillingness among lawmakers to give the Iraqi military the right weapons to fight al-Qaida.
“It is unclear why some on the Hill are blocking the delivery of support [Apaches] to the government of Iraq, especially at a time when the Iraqi government is seeking the weapons it needs to effectively battle al-Qaida,” a senior administration official told Defense News, referring to its desire to lease and sell Boeing-made Apache helicopters to Baghdad.
Senior aides to Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, fired back on Thursday, saying their boss — as well as senior committee staffers — have tried in vain since June to agree on a way forward with the White House and State Department that would allow the Apache transaction to go through.
“What is shocking is the State Department and the administration had not been more engaging with us on what they’re doing with the Iraqis on this,” a Senate Foreign Relations Committee aide told Defense News Thursday in a telephone conversation that included a second panel aide. “I think the administration has not yet successfully calibrated how to best engage with Congress.”
The committee aides described a back-and-forth with senior White House, State Department and Pentagon officials that was almost one-sided until this week, when they say all three became “more energized” to assuage Menendez’s concerns.
“Specifically on Iraq, it’s been out there that Iraq has been seriously destabilized for a while, yet the administration has not been signaling to us that it was really a priority,” the first committee aide said, adding executive branch officials seemed more focused on Egypt, Syria and other hot spots in the region.
A White House spokesman declined to address the aides’ comments, and referred reporters to the State Department. A spokeswoman called the aides’ accusations “offensive and incorrect.”
“It’s our officials who are on the ground and in touch with Iraqi leaders every day, working with them to build their capacity and confront the terrorist threat they face. The Government of Iraq is seeking to use the Foreign Military Sales program to increase its capability to counter terrorist threats,” according to a statement from spokeswoman Marie Harf. “The administration supports this effort, and several senior US officials have routinely coordinated with members of Congress and staff and provided regular briefings to address any issues that may arise with any proposed sale.
Menendez is concerned over how the US-made Apache helicopters might be used by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. His aides say he and senior committee staff have asked Obama administration officials multiple times since last spring to describe how the helicopters’ use would be tracked to verify that Iraqi security and military forces were using them responsibly.
What’s more, the Foreign Relations Committee chairman also has requested that before he stands aside and allows the attack helicopter lease-purchase deal to go forward, the Obama administration and Maliki’s government must force aircraft flying from Iran to Syria over Iraq to land and be inspected.
The committee aides said Menendez and other panel members are concerned that aircraft traveling from Iran to civil war-torn Syria via Iraqi airspace are loaded with weapons being used by Syrian forces and perhaps al-Qaida-affiliated groups that are battling opposition forces in a bloody conflict there.
The committee aides said Menendez spoke with Deputy Secretary of State William Burns about the situation in Iraq and the pending Apache deal on Tuesday, and they reported some progress was made.
“The conversation with Burns on Tuesday suggested they are now re-looking at [the chairman’s] concerns in a new, dedicated way,” the second aide said. “These aren’t unique concerns. These are always a concern with any country [to which] the US is selling weapons. The same is true of the overflight issue.”
The Foreign Relations aides credited White House, State Department and Pentagon officials for engaging on the Iraqi arms sales issue and Menendez’s concerns after al-Qaida forces captured the strategic city of Fallujah. In 2004, US Marines took back Fallujah from extremist fighters in a bloody battle that in many ways became a symbol of the US-led conflict in Iraq.
“There’s an added urgency to respond to those outstanding issues from the State Department, and to come up with responses to both items,” the first committee aide said.
Asked if the administration has informed lawmakers of a desire to send Iraq other weapons that could arrive sooner than this spring, the first aide replied, “Yes.”
“The State and Defense departments are working with the Iraqi government on what we can do in the short-term to get some assistance to them,” the aide said, noting the White House can green-light arms shipments below a certain amount without needing the kind of congressional clearance that a larger transaction such as attack helicopters requires under law.
Though the White House and State Department are working to ease Menendez’s concerns so the Apache deal can be finalized, the aides noted the attack aircraft would not be ready overnight.
“The sell models of the helicopters wouldn’t arrive for three years,” the second committee aide said, adding the lease models would not arrive “until the spring or summer.”
And it remains unclear if the Obama administration will be able to assuage Menendez’s and other committee members’ worries about just how Maliki would use the helos.
On the record, the committee sounds — though somewhat cryptically — willing to approve the helicopter transaction.
“The administration is now addressing concerns first raised in July that required responses before this sale could proceed,” Adam Sharon, Senate Foreign Relations Committee spokesman, said in a brief statement.” Provided these issues are sufficiently addressed, Chairman Menendez will be ready to move forward.”
But when granted anonymity to speak candidly, committee aides sound a more critical tone.
“Where we were in July is where we are today. Those concerns have been raised once, and they have been raised again,” the second aide said. “But until there’s a satisfactory response that meets the threshold the chairman is interested in,” his hold on the helicopters stands.
As the Democratic Obama administration jousts with a clearly agitated Democratic-run Senate Foreign Relations Committee, congressional GOP hawks such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona want Washington to pick up the pace of sending helicopters, Hellfire missiles and intelligence support to the Iraqi government.
Democrats, such as Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan and senior Foreign Relations Committee member Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland tell Defense News they support additional arms sales beyond shipments the White House this week put on a fast track — but with strings attached.
Maliki and other Iraqi officials “have got to do a lot more in terms of bringing in the Sunni groups that want Iraq to be a country, who aren’t party of al-Qaida, who aren’t extremists,” Levin said Tuesday in a brief interview.
“And we also have to have assurances [regarding] what those weapons would be used for, and who they would be used against,” he said. “I’m for additional military aid for Iraq, but only when those concerns have been met.”
McCain, in a separate interview, also called on Maliki to become much more inclusive and cease hostilities toward non-Shiites.
Paul McLeary contributed to this report.