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Baghdad - Iraq has asked the United States for new arms to beat back the dramatic resurgence of al-Qaida-linked militants in a western province and would like U.S. troops to train its counterterrorism forces, the country's prime minister said in an interview Thursday.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said he provided the wish list after a phone call with Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday. Those weapons, which include assault rifles and artillery, might be easy to get to Baghdad soon, U.S. officials said.
"Some is on hand, and we can supply it quickly," a senior American diplomat said Thursday, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
The request for stepped-up U.S. assistance is adding urgency to a debate over the types of weapons that Washington ought to provide to Maliki's government and the leverage that aid could give the United States.
Despite the stunning revival of the Sunni insurgency, which has carried out an intense wave of attacks over the past year and seized control of the key cities in Anbar province, Maliki said he did not regret that his administration had not managed to reach a deal with Washington that would have kept U.S. troops in Iraq after 2011.
"Since the American withdrawal, we've had a friendly relationship, but this strong bilateral relationship doesn't mean we need American forces here," a weary-looking Maliki said in the interview, conducted in his office in Baghdad's heavily barricaded Green Zone.
U.S. officials have watched Iraq's soaring violence with alarm over the past year, as an insurgency that the American military took credit for decimating has re-emerged as a powerful regional force. But they also have come to see the crisis as an opportunity to retain influence in Iraq by keeping it as a staunch ally and worry that if they're unable to meet its urgent needs, Baghdad will increasingly turn to other countries for materiel.
"We're at a point where there is an opportunity to reinvigorate the partnership," said retired Lt. Gen. James Dubik, who led the command that trained and equipped Iraq's security forces in 2008. "We ought to take that opportunity."
The weapons Maliki has requested are a small piece of the massive list of defense items that Iraq is trying to buy from the United States. Although Baghdad is also seeking Apache helicopters, the prospective sale has been snarled in Congress, where lawmakers have sought assurances that Iraqi security forces won't use the aircraft to crush political opponents or crack down on dissent in Sunni communities.
Dubik said that such concerns are legitimate but that they also provide Washington with an opportunity to nudge Maliki to govern more inclusively, an objective that the Obama administration regards as vital in the run-up to a parliamentary vote scheduled for the spring.
"I think we're right in trying to get assurances that the equipment will be used properly," he said. "Therein lies part of the opportunity."
Since 2005, the Pentagon has processed military orders for the Iraqi government worth nearly $10.5 billion. Iraq has initiated other orders that, if approved, could raise that sum to nearly $25 billion, according to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service.
U.S. military officials say that keeping the Iraqi armed forces reliant on U.S. systems would give Washington leverage for decades and foster a relationship built during the war in Iraq.
Because the U.S. defense export system is slow and sometimes stymied by politics, Iraq in recent years has begun to turn to Russia, South Korea and other countries that have more nimble military sales programs.
"Iraq has needs, and it also has resources," a senior U.S. official told reporters in a recent briefing conducted on the condition of anonymity. "We don't actually gain leverage over the Iraqis by withholding these systems. We tend to cede that leverage to our strategic competitors."
Maliki said during the interview that he would support a new U.S. military training mission for Iraqi counterterrorism troops in Jordan, marking the first time he has expressed support for a plan that the Pentagon has been contemplating in recent months. U.S. military officials have not provided details on the scope or timing for such a training mission.
The Iraqi prime minister said he is "satisfied that we will achieve victory against al-Qaida." But he also cautioned that the situation is complicated and intertwined with the sectarian conflict in neighboring Syria.
"The whole region's events are connected," he said. "To solve the problem in Iraq, we cannot look at it in isolation from the other events in the region."
Maliki deflected blame for the ongoing crisis in his country, saying the Sunni violence has been "exported" to Iraq by another Arab country, an apparent reference to Saudi Arabia.
"Al-Qaida is the one using sectarian issues," he said. "The purpose is to drag Sunni and Shiite into fighting with each other."
Maliki, a Shiite, said his government is making inroads with Sunni leaders in Anbar, to join forces in the fight against insurgents. Many have come to see his government as sectarian and despotic, but they also dread the prospect of living in insurgent-held territory.
"We are going to use the sons of these provinces to take care of security in their provinces," Maliki said. To do that, he added, trust "definitely" needs to be rebuilt.
The recent return of fighters from the Iraqi franchise of al-Qaida to the streets of Fallujah and Ramadi was not without warning. U.S. officials said the insurgent group began establishing camps with dozens of trucks and training facilities in remote parts of Anbar last year.
"When we were fighting al-Qaida groups here, those guys would never have been able to last more than 10 minutes," the senior U.S. official said.
When the Iraqi military deployed unarmored helicopters to the area, they were attacked with machine guns. When ground troops attempted to close in, the insurgents ambushed them.
The Iraqi government thought it had made a breakthrough when its forces raided a camp on Dec. 22. But when senior military officials went to inspect the aftermath of the operation, an explosion killed the entire command corps of the Iraqi army's 7th Division.
The attack prompted Maliki to take more-assertive action against militants in Anbar, and he ordered the dismantling of a protest camp in Ramadi. Tensions simmered in the region when security forces carried out a raid that resulted in the death of the intended target and the arrest of a member of parliament.
That incident sparked a wave of local anger that resulted in the withdrawal of the army, allowing convoys of al-Qaida militants to drive into cities largely devoid of security forces. Since then, Ramadi, the provincial capital, is largely back in the control of local tribal leaders. Fallujah, meanwhile, remains held by al-Qaida and allied groups.
Maliki said he does not intend to send armed forces into Fallujah, saying he wants to give the tribes time to drive the militants out.
"We will get them outside the city," Maliki said, adding that government forces have refrained from entering the cities because of the fear of civilian casualties. He said pro-government tribes have been given weapons to oust the militants, including AK-47s and Russian PK machine guns.