THE BLOG
02/26/2014 11:43 am ET Updated Apr 28, 2014

US Missing the Boat on Halting Iraq Arms Sales

In a news briefing on Monday, the State Department spokesperson, Jen Psaki, said the United States has "serious concerns" about recent media reports that Iraq may have signed a $195 million weapons deal with Iran. If the unconfirmed reports are true, the deal would violate UN Security Council Resolution 1747, which bans Iran from transferring arms to any third country. Yet the US, in going ahead with its own arms sales to Iraq, misses the point. The US should focus on the strong likelihood that Iraq's security forces will use US weapons to commit abuses and further entrench sectarian divisions within the country.

The deadline for Congress to stop the small arms and Hellfire rockets deliveries passed days ago and the deadline to stop the Apache sales is midnight tonight. In the absence of immediate congressional action -- of which there is no evidence -- Congress has missed its final chance to stop the administration's poor policymaking on these arms sales.

The US has long supported the Iraqi government with arms, though the Iraqi government has committed serious, widespread abuses against its own people in the name of counterterrorism. That has proven ineffective in combating terrorism but has stoked resentment. Psaki acknowledged that the US has "provided the Iraqi military and security forces with more than $15 billion in equipment, services, and training," and recently delivered to Iraq "Hellfire missiles and hundreds of small arms along with large quantities of small arms and tank ammunition," but did not address the copious evidence giving cause for concern that Iraq will use these weapons to continue abuses.

The State Department's own 2012 Human Rights report noted, "Human rights violations committed by [Iraqi Security Forces] personnel were rarely investigated, and perpetrators were seldom punished," and that the government "did not take widespread action to reform security forces to improve human rights."

The new Human Rights Watch research about the treatment of women in Iraq's criminal justice system, for example, shows that security forces frequently subject detained women to torture and ill-treatment, including the threat of sexual abuse. In early January, Anbar residents told us that the army's mortar fire on residential neighborhoods had killed at least 25 residents in the first few days of fighting in Fallujah.

In November, we documented how Iraqi security forces, including agents from Special Weapons and Tactics [SWAT] in the Counterterrorism Service [CTS] -- precisely the security forces who, along with the army, are at the forefront of the fighting in Anbar -- abused residents by surrounding and closing off majority Sunni neighborhoods, illegally raiding homes and carrying out mass arrests. Since 2010 we have repeatedly reported that security forces including SWAT, federal police, and the army use unlawful force against peaceful protesters; carry out illegal arrests, interrogations, and detentions, and systematically use torture during interrogations.

A number of other credible experts, including the International Crisis Group and the Institute for the Study of War, have also extensively documented security force abuses. These reports should have been a strong indicator to the administration that the sale of significant defense items for counterterrorism purposes might lead to greater instability, not less.

These concerns were not lost on a bipartisan group of senior Senators, including Robert Menendez, Carl Levin, Bob Corker, and John McCain, who rightly voiced concerns over the abusive tactics systematically used by army and security forces when Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki visited the US seeking military assistance in November.

American laws on Foreign Military Sales require the government to vet and prevent provision of arms and other assistance to abusive military units. Under the Arms Export Control Act of 1976 [ACEA], Congress has the power to issue a resolution of disapproval within 30 days of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency's notification to Congress of an impending sale. It is unclear whether these weapons sales to Iraq were vetted thoroughly, but the consistent documentation of security forces' patterns of abuse were a foreboding indicator of how these weapons could be used.

The Iraqi government desperately needs to address insurgent groups' abuses in Iraq and protect its citizens from the violence that claimed over 8,000 civilian lives last year. The government failed to protect its citizens, instead further entrenching abuses and giving further momentum to Iraq's cruel cycle of instability. The United States government should be taking every possible step to ensure that its weapons are not going to be used for further abuses.

In contrast, the administration's concern about the possibility of Iran's arms sale to Iraq seems disappointingly misplaced in light of the overwhelming evidence of abusive and illegal techniques by SWAT, the federal police, and the army -- strong evidence that the weapons being supplied would be used for further abuse. With Congress too having missed the boat on its responsibility to make decisions in line with the US's human rights obligations, the inevitable result is that the US becomes complicit in the rapidly devolving situation in Iraq.

Erin Evers is a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch who has done extensive work in Iraq.