Obama Denies Iraq's Request for Apaches and Drones

AH-64 Apache Longbow

President Obama pledged Tuesday to give Iraq what it needs to defeat ISIS but stopped short of promising the delivery of high-end weaponry such as Apache attack helicopters and armed drones.

At an Oval Office meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, Obama was asked directly about the Apaches and drones, and said "this is why we are having this meeting."

Obama said he needed to hear first from Abadi on the best ways "to make sure that Iraqi security forces are in a position to succeed in our common mission" against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Abadi said the Iraqi people were grateful for the U.S. airstrikes, training and weapons support but "we want to see more."

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said later that Abadi made no specific requests for additional military assistance despite reports from Iraq that he was coming with a billion-dollar wish list that included drones and Apaches.

Under former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq repeatedly asked for Apaches and F-16s but the U.S. sidestepped on the requests.

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In his first meeting with Abadi, Obama noted the progress that had been made since U.S. airstrikes began last Aug. 8.

"About a quarter of the territory fallen under Daesh (ISIS) control has been recovered," Obama said. "The Iraqi security forces have been rebuilt and are getting re-equipped, retrained and strategically deployed across the country."

Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said the U.S. currently has 3,040 troops in Iraq and 2,240 of those troops are assigned to the train, advise and assist role in building up the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). The rest of the U.S. troops are involved in force protection, Warren said.

The key to success, Obama said, is Abadi's commitment "to an inclusive government where Shia, Sunni and Kurds and all the peoples of Iraq are unified."

In response, Abadi noted that "the American people have made great sacrifices for the sake of Iraq, and the blood of its sons and daughters is mixed also with the blood of the Iraqis, but I can assure you that these sacrifices will not go to waste."

Abadi assured Obama that "in spite of the war that we are facing, there's a real working democracy in Iraq.  We have political parties, we have a parliament, we have a national unity government that is unique in the region."

In response to U.S. concerns about the influence of Iran, Abadi was careful not to antagonize his powerful neighbor.

"I am aware that regional countries have their own interests and I respect these interests, but I also welcome any assistance that they would provide, and I would like to thank them also for any assistance they have provided," Abadi said.

Obama said that in his closed meeting with Abadi the subject of Iranian influence was "something that we discussed extensively."

The U.S. president said "we expect Iran to have an important relationship with Iraq as a close neighbor," but he said that Iranian-backed Shiite militias must be answerable to the Iraqi government.

Obama and Abadi did not indicate whether they had decided on the way forward against ISIS following the retaking of Tikrit last month amid speculation that the U.S. favored preparing to move against Mosul while the Baghdad government favored pressing ISIS in Anbar province.

"Certainly, part of the reason for this visit is to coordinate this important work," Abadi said of the next moves against ISIS. "We have plans to liberate al Anbar and Nineweh (province including Mosul) and, of course, we need high-level coordination for this effort."

Following the White House talks, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter welcomed Iraqi Defense Minister Khaled al-Obaid with an honor cordon at the Pentagon.

The White House put out a fact sheet on aid to Iraq showing that since the fall of 2014 the U.S. had delivered to Iraq more than 100 million rounds of ammunition, 62,000 small arms systems, 1,700 Hellfire missiles, and six M1A1 Abrams tanks.

In addition, the U.S. sent 250 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles to Iraq in December 2014 and January 2015 -- 25 of which were subsequently provided to Kurdish forces.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at richard.sisk@military.com

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