WASHINGTON — The United States is quietly rushing dozens of Hellfire missiles and low-tech surveillance drones to Iraq to help government forces combat an explosion of violence by a Qaeda-backed insurgency that is gaining territory in both western Iraq and neighboring Syria.
The move follows an appeal for help in battling the extremist group by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who met with President Barack Obama in Washington last month.
But some military experts question whether the patchwork response will be sufficient to reverse the sharp downturn in security that has already led to the deaths of more than 8,000 Iraqis this year, 952 of them Iraqi security force members, according to the United Nations, the highest level of violence since 2008.
Al Qaeda’s regional affiliate, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, has become a potent force in northern and western Iraq. Riding in armed convoys, the group has intimidated towns, assassinated local officials and, in an episode last week, used suicide bombers and hidden explosives to kill the commander of the Iraqi army’s 7th Division and more than a dozen of his officers and soldiers as they raided a Qaeda training camp near Rutbah.
Three bombings on Christmas in Christian areas of Baghdad, which killed more than two dozen people, bore the hallmarks of a Qaeda operation.
The surge in violence stands in sharp contrast to earlier assurances from senior Obama administration officials that Iraq was on the right path, despite the failure of US and Iraqi officials in 2011 to negotiate an agreement for a limited number of US forces to remain in Iraq.
In a March 2012 speech, Antony Blinken, who is currently Obama’s deputy national security adviser, asserted that “Iraq today is less violent” than “at any time in recent history.”
In contrast, after a recent spate of especially violent attacks against Iraqi forces, elected officials and civilians, Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, issued a strongly worded statement Sunday warning that the Qaeda affiliate is “seeking to gain control of territory inside the borders of Iraq.”
Pledging that steps would be taken to strengthen Iraqi forces, Psaki noted that the Qaeda affiliate was a “common enemy of the United States and the Republic of Iraq and a threat to the greater Middle East region.”
But the counterterrorism effort the United States is undertaking with Iraq has its limits.
Iraq’s foreign minister has floated the idea of having US-operated, armed Predator or Reaper drones respond to the expanding militant network. But al-Maliki, who is positioning himself to run for a third term as prime minister and who is sensitive to nationalist sentiment at home, has not formally requested such intervention.
The idea of carrying out such drone attacks, which might prompt the question of whether the Obama administration has succeeded in bringing the Iraq War to what the president has called a “responsible end,” also appears to have no support in the White House.
“We have not received a formal request for US-operated armed drones operating over Iraq, nor are we planning to divert armed ISR over Iraq,” said Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, referring to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions.
For now, the new lethal aid from the United States, which Iraq is buying, includes a shipment of 75 Hellfire missiles, delivered to Iraq last week. The weapons are strapped beneath the wings of small Cessna turboprop planes and fired at militant camps with the CIA secretly providing targeting assistance.
In addition, 10 ScanEagle reconnaissance drones are expected to be delivered to Iraq by March. They are smaller cousins of the larger, more capable Predators that used to fly over Iraq.
US intelligence and counterterrorism officials say they have effectively mapped the locations and origins of the Qaeda network in Iraq and are sharing this information with the Iraqis.
Administration officials said the aid was significant because the Iraqis had virtually run out of Hellfire missiles. The Iraqi military, with no air force to speak of and limited reconnaissance of its own, has a very limited ability to locate and quickly strike Al Qaeda militants as they maneuver in western and northern Iraq. The combination of US-supplied Hellfire missiles, tactical drones and intelligence is intended to augment that limited Iraqi ability.
The Obama administration has given three sensor-laden Aerostat balloons to the Iraqi government and provided three additional reconnaissance helicopters to the Iraqi military. The United States is planning to send 48 Raven reconnaissance drones before the end of 2014 and to deliver the first of the F-16 fighters Iraq has bought next fall.
The lack of armed drones, some experts assert, will hamper efforts to dismantle the Qaeda threat in Iraq over the coming weeks and months.
“Giving them some ScanEagle drones is great,” said Michael Knights, an expert on Iraqi security at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “But is it really going to make much difference? Their range is tiny.”
“The real requirement today is for a long-range, high endurance armed drone capability,” added Knights, who frequently travels to Iraq. “There is one place in the world where Al Qaeda can run a major affiliate without fear of a US drone or air attack and that is in Iraq and Syria.”
In an effort to buttress the Iraqi military’s abilities, the Obama administration has sought congressional approval to lease and eventually sell Apache helicopter gunships. But some lawmakers have been hesitant, fearing that they might be used by al-Maliki to intimidate political opponents.
A plan to lease six Apaches to the Iraqi government is pending in the Senate. Frustrated by US reluctance to sell Apaches, the Iraqis have turned to Russia, which delivered four Mi-35 attack helicopters last month and planned to provide more than two dozen more. Meanwhile, cities and towns like Mosul, Haditha and Baqouba that US forces fought to control during the 2007 and 2008 troop surge have been the scene of bloody Qaeda attacks.
Using extortion and playing on Sunni grievances against al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government, the Qaeda affiliate is largely self-financing. One Iraqi politician, who asked not to be named to avoid retaliation, said Al Qaeda militants had even begun to extort money from shopkeepers in Ramadi, Anbar’s provincial capital.
A number of factors are helping the Qaeda affiliate. The terrorist group took advantage of the departure of US forces to rebuild its operations in Iraq and push into Syria. Now that it has established a strong foothold in Syria, it is in turn using its base there to send suicide bombers into Iraq at a rate of 30 to 40 a month, using them against Shiites but also against Sunnis who are reluctant to cede control.
The brutal tactics, some experts say, may expose Al Qaeda to a Sunni backlash, much as in 2006 and 2007 when Sunni tribes aligned themselves with US forces against the Qaeda extremists.
But al-Maliki’s failure to share power with Sunni leaders, some Iraqis say, has also provided a fertile recruiting ground.
Haitham Abdullah al-Jubouri, a 40-year-old government employee in Baqouba, said that “the policy of the sectarian government” had “contributed to the influx of desperate young elements from the Sunni community to the ranks of Al Qaeda.”
In Mosul, most of the security force members who are not from the area have left the city, and Al Qaeda controls whole sections of territory.
“In the morning, we have some control, but at night, this is when we hide and the armed groups make their movements,” said an Iraqi security official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, out of fear of retaliation.
Ayad Shaker, a police officer in Anbar, said that Al Qaeda had replenished its ranks with a series of prison breakouts and that the group had also grown stronger because of the limited abilities of Iraqi forces, the Syrian conflict and tensions between al-Maliki and the Sunnis.
Shaker said that three close relatives had been killed by Al Qaeda and that he had been wounded by bombs the group had planted.
“I fought Al Qaeda,” he said. “I am sad today when I see them have the highest authority in Anbar, moving and working under the sun without deterrent.”