Al-Qaeda terror attacks have become such a deadly epidemic in Iraq that the government in Baghdad is seeking U.S. advisers, air surveillance or even drone strikes, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said yesterday.
“We cannot fight these increasing terrorist” threats alone, Zebari said in an interview with reporters in Washington. Zebari credited the U.S. with “vast experience” breaking up al-Qaeda cells in Iraq, and said that expertise in intelligence, analysis and targeting was lost when U.S. forces pulled out of his country in December 2011.
The top Iraqi diplomat’s comments are the first time he has publicly raised the possibility of working with the U.S. on anti-terrorist drone strikes, a clandestine program whose use against terror groups in Pakistan has fueled widespread protest and damaged the U.S. alliance there.
Zebari was to meet yesterday with General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff who served in Iraq, to discuss increased anti-terror cooperation.
“There is a greater realization in the Iraqi government that you should not shy away” from asking for more U.S. assistance “short of introducing U.S. troops in numbers,” Zebari said.
More than 3,000 people have been killed in terror attacks in Iraq in the past few months, including more than 60 who died last weekend during the holiday marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and 30 who were killed hours before Zebari met Aug. 15 with Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington.
In 2011 and 2012, suicide bombings in Iraq averaged between five and 10 a month. That number rose to 30 a month over the last 90 days, according to the State Department.
Zebari attributed the worsening violence in part to the rise of well-armed and well-funded jihadist groups fighting the more than two-year-old civil war in neighboring Syria, and their collaboration with Iraqi militants. Al-Qaeda-linked groups are launching attacks on both sides of the border, which is difficult for his country to police, he said.
The Obama administration recently notified Congress that it would sell Iraq about $4 billion in weapons, including an air defense system to help it control its airspace and Stryker armored vehicles. The U.S. is scheduled to provide a shipment of F-16 aircraft to Iraq later this year.
Iraq’s inability to control its airspace has been a point of contention as U.S. officials have complained that Iraq has failed to intercept and inspect flights from Iran that the U.S. suspects are ferrying weapons and fighters to help Syrian President Bashar al-Assad put down the armed rebellion.
Zebari said his government had inspected more than 15 flights to Syria since Kerry visited Iraq in March, including Iranian and Syrian planes as well as at least one North Korean and one Armenian flight. He said the Iraqis found only humanitarian supplies.
Zebari praised the Obama administration for paying more attention to Iraq in recent months as the terror threat has risen, after what he called a long stretch by the U.S. of ignoring Iraq in the aftermath of the troop withdrawal.
Asked if the Iraqi people would accept armed U.S. drones conducting lethal attacks over their territory -- a tool that Pakistanis have denounced as a violation of sovereignty --Zebari dismissed such concerns.
As long as strikes were to “target al-Qaeda and their bases,” without causing “collateral damage,” Zebari said he thinks Iraqis would welcome them as “part of assistance” to prevent attacks killing innocent Iraqis.
Iraq may seek a limited number of U.S. advisers as well as technical assistance and increased counterterrorism cooperation, he said, though it won’t seek a renewed U.S. troop presence. American forces completed their withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 after the U.S. and Iraqi governments failed to reach an agreement to give the troops immunity from local prosecution.
Iraq also would “welcome American reconnaissance over Iraq” and assistance with surveillance, particularly near its borders, he said.
With “the whole Middle East” is turmoil and “in flames” over the last months, the foreign minister said, “we really see renewed focus on the situation in Iraq and the whole region.”
“The level of the threat has increased,” he said, and “one of the key messages we have here is really we need your support, your cooperation on the security side to fight al-Qaeda to enhance our capabilities.”
The response, he said, has been positive, with Iraq “pushing through open doors” recently in seeking more attention and counterterrorism assistance.
Zebari also said an agreement in principle was reached this week for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to meet, perhaps as soon as in September, with President Barack Obama in Washington.