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Debate emerges over US support for airpower in Iraq

T-6A Texan II: fighter training Iraqi pilots
As Iraqi security forces clashed with Al-Qaeda-backed militants who have seized Fallujah and Ramadi during the week of 6 January, new questions were raised in the US about providing air support to the Iraqi government.

Representative Adam Kinzinger, a Republican from Illinois and a US Air Force (USAF) veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, criticised the US government for "short-sighted policy decisions and hurried withdrawal from the region".

He also said he believes US airpower and intelligence - but not ground forces - should be used to help Iraqi security forces recapture two cities in Iraq's Al Anbar province, Fallujah, and Ramadi.

"While we cannot reintroduce ground soldiers in Iraq after leaving, I do support robust intelligence operations, and, in some cases, limited airpower in assisting the Iraqi government," he said.

The Iraqi government and some allied Sunni tribes attribute the seizure of Fallujah and Ramadi to the Al-Qaeda-backed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. According to Jane's Intelligence Review , however, it would not have been possible without backing from local tribes.

Zach Hunter, a spokesman for Kinzinger, said the congressman believes the US military should provide some air support to quell the violence.

Some US analysts, however, have raised the question of whether the seizure of these cities ever would have happened if the US government had swiftly followed through with plans to deliver Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon fighters and Boeing AH-64 Apache attack helicopters to Iraq.

The platforms have been slow to arrive because some US lawmakers have raised concerns that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki might use them against Sunni and Kurdish minorities.

The White House has supported Iraq's bid to lease six Boeing AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, but US senators have held up the deal. The Iraqi prime minister attempted to lobby the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when he visited Washington, DC, last November, but to no avail.

To fill the capability gap in the interim, the Iraqi government has ordered attack helicopters from Russia. The helicopters started to arrive in Iraq last November.

The Iraqi government's plans to procure 36 Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon fighters have also been slow to materialise.

Iraqi officials signed a contract in 2011 for 18 F-16 aircraft, and another in 2012 for 18 more. The first deal was delayed because al-Maliki's government faced budget shortfalls and a political crisis following disputed elections. Another hindrance has been the view expressed by some in the US military that the Iraqi Air Force (IQAF) - considered one of the weakest of the military services in terms of capabilities, assets, and training - would be ill-equipped to fly the F-16.

Lawmakers' concerns about building up the IQAF have been shared by outside experts. In 2010, RAND Corporation, a US-based think tank, issued a report noting that plans to build up the IQAF could further destabilise security in the country.

"Plans to build an air force with ground-strike capabilities could increase anxiety and affect Arab-Kurdish relations," the report said.

Indeed, the Iraqi security forces' show of force in Al Anbar will likely lead to the re-establishment of government control, but it will come at the price of increasing support for the insurgency, according to Jane's Intelligence Review . In fact, the publication notes, Al Anbar is poised to become a front-line in the regional conflict between Sunni and Shia, with the intensity of attacks increasing in the run-up to Iraq's parliamentary election in April 2014.

While the delivery of US-built helicopters and fighters remains controversial, in December the US State Department confirmed that 75 AGM-114 Hellfire missiles had recently been delivered to Iraq and that unmanned aerial vehicles will follow in 2014.

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