Back to the future: Iraq may be open to return of some U.S. troops

Not infantry, says Foreign Policy, but drone operators. Sunni jihadis are rampaging anew in Anbar province, enabled by the maelstrom next door in Syria, and the Shiite government in Baghdad is desperate for ways to push them back. Two weeks ago, Reuters reported that Maliki’s latest innovation in combating the Sunni menace was, er, government-backed Shiite militias, which signals a return to Iraq’s beyond-Thunderdome days of 2006.

Time for Uncle Sam to step in?

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…

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…

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.

Would Obama consider sending drone teams to Baghdad to start picking off Al Qaeda units on the ground? Sure, why not? Americans may be war weary but they were war weary in 2011 too and no one put up much of a fuss when O decided to bomb Libya. They’ll accept war from the air, including/especially war by remote control; it’s American casualties they oppose, not American bombs falling on the enemy. The thought of sending any members of the U.S. military back into Iraq at this point is … unhelpful politically, shall we say, but that can be finessed easily enough. Explain to the public that these are the heirs to Bin Laden and Zarqawi, the people who are helping to make Syria a living hell, who’ll surely target America if/when they can carve out safe territory somewhere. There’s really no choice but go on offense.

Besides, using drones in Iraq would achieve three things for the White House. One: It would give them more leverage over Maliki, whom they’re forever begging to reconcile with the Sunni leadership. He won’t do it, but he might be more responsive to them in the short and medium term if he’s partly dependent on America’s help in dealing with them militarily. It’ll also give the U.S. some leverage over Baghdad vis-a-vis Iran, who’ll otherwise be Maliki’s only protector. Two: It’ll impress America’s new frenemies in Tehran, who’d naturally love to see the Sunnis in Iraq and Syria take a beating from the United States. Our “allies” in Riyadh might look dimly on it but Obama already kinda sorta burned that bridge by making his phony nuclear deal with the mullahs. Consider drone strikes on AQ a goodwill gesture to the Shiite power. And most importantly, three: The U.S. is probably going to need a base in the neighborhood soon anyway in order to start launching drone strikes on Al Qaeda members in Syria. If jihadi rebels manage to reach a stalemate with Assad and carve out some territory for their new Sunnistan, that’ll quickly jump up our Places To Bomb list. Turkey’s the natural choice to stage U.S. drone attacks across the border but you never know which way Turkish politics will go; it’d be useful to have the gratitude of the Iraqi prime minister and a prefab staging area in Iraq too. O (probably) wouldn’t even need to get a new Status of Forces Agreement through the Senate to do it. The only potential political impediment for him is that he promised last year that he was going to kinda sorta rein in drone attacks, but conservatives won’t hassle him on that and the left will quickly roll over and play dead if he insists. Seems like a no-brainer.

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