By Arshad Mohammed and Missy Ryan
WASHINGTON, Aug 15 (Reuters) - The United States may accelerate U.S. economic and military aid to Iraq with the end of Nuri al-Maliki's eight-year reign but will first want proof that the country's new leaders have abandoned his sectarian ways.
Maliki's surprise announcement that he would give way to Haider Abadi as Iraq's prime minister removes the man blamed by Washington for the revival of vicious sectarianism in Iraq and the advance of the Islamic State deep into Iraqi territory.
U.S. officials said his departure, which may not occur until September, could open the door to greater military and economic assistance to a new Iraqi government if it adopts an inclusive agenda.
Despite saying the United States had no intention of "being the Iraqi air force," President Barack Obama has also suggested U.S. air strikes could go on for months to help Iraqis fend off Islamic State fighters seeking to establish a hub of jihadism in the heart of the Arab world.
Obama, however, faces two important questions: can Abadi's new government unite Iraqis after his predecessor helped drive the Sunni minority into the jihadist camp? And is the U.S. public willing to pour more taxpayer money into a country that cost it billions of dollars and thousands of American lives since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein?
"Whatever future military assistance we continue to provide to Iraq won't be tied specifically or solely to the new prime minister," said a U.S. defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military planning. "To say that now that there's a new guy it will open the floodgates would be way overstating this."
A second U.S. defense official said the United States would be looking for the next government to integrate the fragmented Iraqi security forces and to provide assistance to the Kurdish minority. But putting a new government program in place will take time, suggesting the measured pace of the administration's response to the Islamic State advance will continue.
"If all those conditions start getting set, then I think you will see the possibility of us accepting an invitation to do more substantive train, advise and assist," the official said. But if this happens, the official added, it would be slow and may take a year.
In the meantime, targeted air strikes and the provision of U.S. military equipment such as Apache helicopters is expected to continue.
Obama, who campaigned on promises to end the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has not yet decided how much more U.S. military action or weaponry he might support in Iraq, said a third U.S. official.
"We've seen the first press allegations of a slippery slope," said this official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. "So you can be sure that people are concerned about what these next steps mean."
MASSIVE U.S. OUTLAY
The human and financial toll from the 2003 invasion ordered by former President George W. Bush looms heavily over policymakers contemplating what to do next in Iraq.
The United States set aside $56.3 billion in aid for Iraq in the decade from fiscal year 2003 to 2012, according to a Congressional Research Service report published last month.
Of that total, the Pentagon spent $20.1 billion to support Iraqi security forces, many of whom quickly melted away in the north when faced with Islamic State fighters last month.
Overall aid to Iraq, one of the world's most oil-rich nations, dropped dramatically in recent years to about $590 million each in fiscal years 2013 and 2014, and $308.7 million was requested in the fiscal year to Sept. 30, 2015.
A fourth U.S. official said the administration was already discussing the kinds of weapons systems Iraqis may need to fight the Islamic State and what more Washington can do to increase Iraqi oil production.
U.S. and European Union officials, however, declined to provide details on what they might provide, saying it was too early and suggesting all sides wanted to see how the Abadi government governs.
A senior European Union official said on Friday after a meeting in Brussels of EU foreign ministers that there had not yet been any discussion within the bloc of economic support for Abadi's government.
"Not yet. It may be a bit too early. It will come later on," said the EU official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank said there could be a modest rise in U.S. aid but cited skepticism about the utility of such assistance and about the centrality of Iraq to U.S. national security as a result of the long American involvement in the country.
"There can be extensive security assistance, which could be a combination of weapons and training. There can be increased intelligence cooperation. There can be encouragement for U.S. companies to invest in Iraq," Alterman said.
"But, in very broad terms, the U.S. government has spent most of what it will ever spend on Iraq," he added. "While you may be able to have a tick upward from the current level, it's very hard for me to imagine the kind of close partnership that people had been hoping for five or six years ago." (Additional reporting by Adrian Croft in Brussels; Writing by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Jason Szep and James Dalgleish)
BEFORE YOU GO
08/16/2014 6:17 PM EDT
US Military: Fighters, Drone Aircraft Strike Militants In N Iraq
BREAKING: US military: Fighters, drone aircraft strike militants near Irbil and Mosul Dam in Iraq— The Associated Press (@AP) August 16, 2014
08/16/2014 6:07 PM EDT
Kurdish Officials Say 300 Killed In Friday 'Massacre'
Correspondent for Britain's The Sunday Times Hala Jaber reports that Kurdish and Yazidi officials say the death toll from the Islamic State's attack on the Iraq village of Kocho on Friday is higher than previously estimated. A Kurdish official initially said around 80 people lost their lives.
.4/ 1000 women were taken as prisoners by #IS split into 2 groups. The "pretty incl gilrs aged btwn 10-11 and the others.— Hala Jaber (@HalaJaber) August 16, 2014
08/16/2014 5:57 PM EDT
British PM: Islamic State Militants Could Target UK
Islamic State militants in Iraq could grow strong enough to target the UK unless action is taken - PM David Cameron http://t.co/k2i5CjTm2S— BBC Breaking News (@BBCBreaking) August 16, 2014
08/16/2014 4:49 PM EDT
NYT Correspondent Recounts Iraq Helicopter Crash
New York Times correspondent Alissa J. Rubin tells her story inside the Iraqi helicopter that crashed on the Sinjar mountains on Tuesday while attempting to rescue stranded Yazidis.
Rubin was wounded in the crash and dictated the article from her hospital bed in Istanbul, the newspaper notes.
Read her moving account on The New York Times here.
08/16/2014 2:23 PM EDT
Iraq Refugees Learn Of Yazidi Massacre
The BBC's Yalda Hakim reports from a refugee camp in Dohuk on how the Yazidi community learned of an alleged massacre by Islamic State militants in Iraq.
Watch the BBC report here.
08/16/2014 1:03 PM EDT
U.S. Provides Air Support To Kurdish Offensive
Kurdish forces, supported by U.S. warplanes, are battling to recaptured Iraq's largest dam from Islamic State militants, Agence France Presse reports.
More from AFP:
Kurdish forces attacked the Islamic State fighters who wrested the Mosul dam from them a week earlier, a general told AFP.
"Kurdish peshmerga, with US air support, have seized control of the eastern side of the dam" complex, Major General Abdelrahman Korini told AFP, saying several jihadists had been killed.
08/16/2014 12:54 PM EDT
The Kurdish Iraqi leader has appealed to Germany for weapons to battle the advancing Islamic State, Reuters reports.
Germany has shied away from direct involvement in military conflicts for much of the post-war era and a survey conducted for Bild am Sonntag newspaper indicated that almost three quarters of Germans were against shipping weapons to the Kurds.
But Germany's defense minister has said the government was looking into the possibility of delivering military hardware.
Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, said the Kurds needed more than the humanitarian aid that Germany began sending on Friday to support people forced to flee their homes by the Sunni militant group's advance.
"We also expect Germany to deliver weapons and ammunition to our army so that we can fight back against the IS terrorists," Barzani told German magazine Focus. He said they needed German training and what they lacked most were anti-tank weapons.
08/16/2014 11:38 AM EDT
U.S.-Backed Kurds Attempt To Recapture Mosul Dam
#BREAKING: US-backed Kurds in bid to retake Iraq's largest dam: general— Agence France-Presse (@AFP) August 16, 2014
08/16/2014 11:14 AM EDT
Airstrikes Target Islamic State After Reports Of Yazidi Massacre
Airstrikes pounded the area around Iraq's largest dam on Saturday in an effort to drive out militants who captured it earlier this month, as reports emerged of the massacre of some 80 members of the Yazidi religious minority by Islamic extremists.
Residents living near the Mosul Dam told The Associated Press that the area was being targeted by airstrikes, but it was not immediately clear whether the attacks were being carried out by Iraq's air force or the U.S., which last week launched an air campaign aimed at halting the advance of the Islamic State group across the country's north.
The extremist group seized the dam on the Tigris River on Aug. 7. Residents near the dam say the airstrikes killed militants, but that could not immediately be confirmed. The residents spoke on condition of anonymity out of fears for their safety.
08/15/2014 6:31 PM EDT
U.S. May Speed Up Aid To Iraq Despite Billions Already Spent
The United States may accelerate economic and military aid to Iraq now Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has stood down, Reuters reports.
U.S. officials first want assurances that the Iraqi government has moved away from the sectarian policies of al-Maliki's administration, according to the news agency.
Read the full story here.