U.S. could train elite Iraqi forces in Jordan
WASHINGTON Jan 9 (Reuters) - The Obama administration is considering providing new training to elite Iraqi forces in Jordan as U.S. officials seek ways to help the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki repel an al Qaeda campaign near its western border.
Earlier this week, U.S. officials said the United States was in discussions with Iraq about training its elite forces in a third country, which would allow Washington to provide a modest measure of new support against militants in the absence of a troop deal allowing U.S. soldiers to operate within Iraq.
"There is discussion about this, and Jordan is included in the discussions," a U.S. defense official said.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that a privately run special operations training center near Amman was one of the sites being considered.
Jordan, grappling with the mounting impact of the grinding conflict in neighboring Syria, is one of the United States' closest allies in the Middle East.
It was not immediately clear who exactly would provide the new training to Iraqi forces, but it might include U.S. special forces soldiers or contractors.
U.S. officials have grown increasingly worried about Iraq in recent weeks as al Qaeda has staged a comeback in western Anbar province, where the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, an al Qaeda affiliate, is seeking to set up a Sunni religious state straddling Iraq and Syria.
Two years after the Obama administration pulled all U.S. troops from Iraq, the U.S. response to mounting sectarian tensions and surging violence in Iraq has been limited by reluctance to further empower Maliki, a Shi'ite increasingly at odds with minority Sunnis, and by a widespread desire to ensure U.S. soldiers aren't involved in another Middle Eastern war.
The United States is already sending Hellfire missiles, surveillance aircraft and other gear that Maliki has requested.
But at a time when many U.S. lawmakers see the Iraqi prime minister as an aspiring authoritarian with close ties to Iran, the Obama administration has not yet provided Iraq with the attack helicopters that Maliki has requested.
Some in the U.S. Senate say the United States should not move ahead with plans to sell and lease several dozen Apache helicopters to Iraq without adequate assurances about how the attack aircraft will be used.
Because U.S. soldiers cannot conduct military activities in Iraq without a Status of Forces Agreement, providing new support to Iraqi forces outside of Iraq is one way the Obama administration can try to help Iraq beat back what appears to be a growing militant threat.
The troop agreement the United States negotiated with Maliki's government in 2008 expired at the end of 2011 as U.S. forces withdrew. (Reporting By Missy Ryan; Editing by Ken Wills)