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US Starts Sending $1.6 Billion Worth of Promised Arms to Iraq — But Who Will Get Them?

The US started delivering military equipment to Iraq in recent weeks, but there are questions and concerns about who will end up with the weapons.

by David Enders
Jun 6 2015, 8:10pm

Photo via EPA

The United States started delivering about $1.6 billion worth of military equipment to Iraq in recent weeks, the first of many weapons shipments that are expected to continue for the next two years.

The Pentagon confirmed to VICE News that the first equipment from the Iraq Train and Equip Fund (ITEF) was shipped about two weeks ago. The development comes as multiple Iraqi leaders have visited Washington in the last few months to ask for more support in their fight against the so-called Islamic State (IS). The militant group has recently gained ground in Iraq and Syria, despite US military and State Department assertions the group's fighting abilities have been degraded by a nine-month bombing campaign.

Related: Loss of Ramadi Put Iraqi Government on the Ropes and the Islamic State on a Roll

The weapons transfers are intended to bolster the Iraqi Army, Kurdish militias in the north, and tribal militias, and sectarian militias across the country. The Iraqi government has insisted on having oversight of the transfers, rather than allowing the US to ship weapons directly to militias fighting alongside what remains of the Iraqi army, as some US lawmakers have suggested.

A Pentagon document that outlines the transfers makes no mention of Iraq's most significant fighting force, the predominantly Shiite Muslim "Popular Mobilization" forces. As the Iraqi army has largely collapsed over the past year, the Iranian-backed militias have assumed the leading role in the fight against IS.

Despite assertions that the Iraqi army receives transfers of arms rather than the militias, VICE News' reporting in Iraq has confirmed that Popular Mobilization forces, known as Hashd al Shaabi in Arabic, also receive US-provided weapons via the Iraqi government.

At the same time, pro-government tribal militias in Anbar province, where IS has recently surged, have said they are ready to fight, but that the Iraqi government has withheld the materiel intended for them. The US has earmarked about 15 percent of the total amount of weapons sent to Iraq for pro-government fighters in Anbar.

Related: Rearming Iraq: The New Arms Race

"Every time we ask for weapons, the government tells us they don't have anymore," one tribal militia leader in Anbar, who asked not to be named because of the security concerns involved with criticizing the Iraqi government, told VICE News.

Tribal militias were instrumental in fighting al Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor organization to IS. In a US military program known as "The Awakening," tribal fighters were put on a payroll between 2006 and 2009. Tribal sheikhs supported the program in exchange for large payouts and reconstruction contracts from the US military.

The program fell apart after the US withdrawal, when the Iraqi government effectively stopped the payments.

Since 2003, political parties that were banned under Saddam Hussein have dominated the government in Baghdad. These groups generally view Anbar's tribes as supporters of Saddam Hussein's government and a long-term danger to their dominance.

Related: Iraq Might Have Lost 2,300 Armored US Humvees to the Islamic State in Mosul

Another issue with the transfers is the amount of weapons Iraqi government forces have lost or abandoned. An Iraqi joke making the rounds suggests that the US should check in advance with IS to see if they have enough room in their stockpiles before making the transfers. The punch line is a reference to the millions of dollars in US-supplied equipment that IS has taken from the Iraqi army and used to devastating effect.

Last week, IS fighters detonated a tank that had been turned into a bomb during an assault on an Iraqi military base. There have already been multiple instances of armored Humvees being used in the same manner. 

Follow David Enders on Twitter: @davidjenders

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