BAGHDAD, Jan. 28 (UPI) -- The United States wants to sell Iraq 24 state-of-the-art AH-64E Apache attack helicopters and 500 AGM-114 Hellfire missiles in a $6.2 billion deal to help Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki crush a swelling insurgency led by al-Qaida that threatens his embattled government.
Providing the Shiite-dominated Baghdad regime with such deadly weaponry, powerful counter-insurgency systems that played a vital role in the U.S. military's success in bringing al-Qaida and its Sunni allies to their knees in 2004-2008, underlines Washington's recognition that Maliki is engaged in a critical battle whose outcome will have important regional consequences.
Maliki's first priority is to recapture the western cities of Fallujah and Ramadi that were seized by al-Qaida Dec. 30 in what is widely seen as a bid to establish a jihadist emirate in overwhelmingly Sunni Anbar province that could linked up to a similar enclave in neighboring Syria where jihadists are fighting the regime of President Bashar Assad.
For months, Maliki, a former Shiite rebel sentenced to death by Saddam Hussein in the 1970s, has been pressing the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama to sell him Apaches and other weapons systems to counter al-Qaida as it rebuilt an organization U.S. forces largely demolished before withdrawing in December 2011.
But he faced U.S. reluctance to get drawn back into a war in Iraq, a conflict that cost about 5,000 American lives and trillions of dollars, or into the 3-year-old sectarian bloodbath in Syria, where al-Qaida is deeply involved.
There was strong opposition in the Congress to major U.S. arms sales to Maliki's government, widely perceived as increasingly autocratic and adamantly against giving the Sunni minority any stake in political power.
Lawmakers feared the counter-insurgency weapons Maliki wanted to beef up his largely ineffectual army could be used against Sunnis protesting their political marginalization since Maliki came to power in May 2006.
The opposition was led by a group of senators headed by Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Apart from human rights concerns about selling advanced weaponry to Maliki, they also voiced concern the Iraqi leader had done nothing to halt Iranian aircraft carrying weapons to Assad's regime in Damascus through Iraq's air space as Washington had demanded.
But Menendez's group dropped its opposition to the $4.8 billion Apache sale this past weekend. A Senate aide said that followed an approach by the U.S. State Department earlier this month and "based on these discussions, the committee has signed off on the lease and sale of the Apaches." He did not elaborate.
The Pentagon notified Congress Monday of its intention to sell the 24 Apaches and plans to lease up to six others for "training purposes" until the helicopters being sold could be delivered. Congress has 30 days to decide.
It's not clear when the leased AH-64s will arrive in Iraq, but the U.S. publication Defense News observed that the $1.37 billion training deal would require 200 American contract personnel to go to Iraq to oversee the program.
Given that Maliki needs AH-64s in the air now so he can mount all-out assaults on the jihadist-held areas of Fallujah and Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, and that he needs major victories over al-Qaida before parliamentary elections scheduled for April 30, it's possible the leased Apaches may be sent into combat as soon as they're delivered, possibly flown by mercenaries.
Despite congressional suspicions about Maliki, the United States has been quietly airlifting dozens of Hellfire missiles and low-tech surveillance drones to Iraq to aid Maliki's forces since mid-December following a visit by Maliki to Washington to press his case.
One shipment of 75 AGM-114s arrived in Iraq just before Christmas. According to various reports, these were attached to the wings of small Cessna observation aircraft and fired at al-Qaida camps.
Russia, meantime, has provided four Mil Mi-35 attack helicopters, with another two dozen expected. Maliki had turned to Moscow for help when Washington refused to sell him Apaches. It's not clear who's flying the Mi-35s.
The United States is also providing Iraq with 10 Boeing ScanEagle reconnaissance drones, small aircraft that can be launched from a catapult and cost $100,000 apiece.
Since 2005, the United States has sold Iraq arms worth $8 billion. These include 18 Lockheed Martin F-16 fighters and 140 M1A1 Abrams tanks built by General Dynamics Land Systems.