The US government is concerned about al Qaeda gaining strength in Iraq. Now, Washington is sending missiles and drones to help Baghdad in the fight against the terror organization.
When Nuri al-Maliki was a guest in November in Washington, his hopes for more military support in the fight with al Qaeda were not met with enthusiasm. Several Democratic and Republican senators spoke out against it, in fact partly blaming Maliki for the escalation of violence in Iraq.
The Obama government it seems is somewhat less critical of Maliki's role. As "The New York Times" uncovered, the US is delivering Hellfire surface-to-air missiles to Baghdad. Some 75 missiles have already been shipped and, according to Iraqi military, they've already been used in operations targeting al Qaeda camps on the Iraqi-Syrian border. Just last week there was an exchange of fire at the border in which militias linked to al Qaeda killed 24 government soldiers.
The opposition politician Ahmed al-Alwani is accused of having taken part in this incident. He was detained by the authorities on Saturday (28.12.2013). Several more people died when al-Alwani's bodyguards attempted to prevent the arrest.
Jen Psaki, spokeswoman of the US State Department, confirmed the missile deal, adding that the US was also delivering surveillance drones to Baghdad. "The United States is committed to supporting Iraq in its fight against terrorism through the Strategic Framework Agreement," she said referring to a 2008 pact between Washington and Baghdad.
"The recent delivery of Hellfire missiles and an upcoming delivery of ScanEagles are standard foreign military sales cases that we have with Iraq to strengthen their capabilities to combat this threat." Al Qaeda was a common enemy of the United States and Iraq and a threat to the entire Middle East, she added.
A bloody year
For months, Iraq has been rocked by bomb blasts on a daily basis. The attackers post car bombs at markets, restaurants and places of worship or blow themselves up in parks or playgrounds. The victims are mostly Shiites. According to United Nations estimates, some 8,000 people were killed in 2013.
Sunni insurgents are mainly behind the attacks. Some groups are targeting security forces in particular while others make no difference between civilians and security staff.
The "Movement for an Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant," the Iraqi branch of al Qaeda, is especially brutal in its attacks. The organization has managed to recruit many new members in the past months. Their goal is the establishment of a Sunni-Islamist state in Iraq and Syria.
A power struggle
The background to the escalation of violence is the simmering tension between Shiites and Sunnis. Shiites make up around 60 percent of the population while Sunnis account for about 20 percent.
When Maliki, a Shiite, became prime minister in 2006, he promised a government for all Iraqis. "The ministries and minister are not the property of the prime minister - that means that he can not use them along the lines of his own ethnic or religious groups."
But over the course of the years, Maliki turned increasingly autocratic in his rule. Formally, the government includes Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. The Sunni members though got systematically pushed out of power. Critics are persecuted by the judiciary.
Al Qaeda resurgence
"The Sunnis feel discriminated against," said Iraq expert Asiem El Difraoui of the Berlin Institute for Media and Communication Policy. "Maliki has pushed them away." Some Sunni politicians have therefore turned to supporting al Qaeda. That way they hope to put pressure on Maliki to reintegrate them into the political process. "This is a dangerous game, playing with fire."
Al Qaeda is experiencing a resurgence in Iraq, he said. The terror organization was becoming "a real power factor." In that, it was profiting from the civil war in Syria: "Jihadists from Syria and Iraq are supporting each other."
According to the Iraqi Defense Minister, there are more than 10 terror camps in the border region between the two countries. Aerial photography allegedly shows extremists are smuggling weapons from Syria to Iraq. In case of danger the armed groups withdraw from Syria to Iraq.
Armed drones for Iraq?
Some observers in the US call on Washington to deliver armed drones to Baghdad as the only way to fight al Qaeda. But Difraoui is doubtful this would be effective. "The Americans have not succeeded in bringing peace to the Afghan-Pakistani border region or to Yemen." The civilian casualties would in fact drive new recruits into the arms of al Qaeda, he warned. As long as the terror group was strong in Syria, it will be impossible to destroy it in Iraq.
The key for fighting al Qaeda in Iraq would most likely be a reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites. The US though, Difraoui explains, was lacking the influence to pressure Maliki back to the negotiation table.