WASHINGTON — Zach Iscol was a Marine captain in 2004 when his platoon — a combined unit of 30 Iraqis and 20 Americans — seized the railroad station on the first night of the bloody battle of Fallouja.
They spent a week kicking in doors and fighting house to house, block by block, in some of the toughest urban combat of America's eight-year war in Iraq. Half a dozen of Iscol's men were wounded, but dozens of Marines in other squads were killed.
Today, with ground that Marines fought and died for under control of insurgents flying the banner of
"Part of me feels like we need to be supporting our allies … and part of me feels like we shouldn't waste any more American blood in that part of the world," Iscol, who retired from the Marines in 2007, said Friday.
His ambivalence mirrors the debate that has reemerged in Washington as fighters from Al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria have overrun parts of Iraq's Anbar province, including the provincial capital, Ramadi, and Fallouja. The fighting has left hundreds of civilians, soldiers and militants dead and forced thousands of families to flee.
"There are a lot of things that can be done to help Iraq, but everyone is talking in the immediate term and there's very little we can do in the immediate term," said Douglas Ollivant, a retired Army officer who was a senior planner in Baghdad in 2006 and 2007.
With declining U.S. leverage in Iraq since the withdrawal, the Obama administration has focused on trying to help without risking U.S. lives or taking sides in what amounts to sectarian fighting between the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad and its tribal allies against Sunni insurgents in Anbar.
A senior Defense official said the U.S. was also likely to send Iraq rush shipments of small arms and ammunition.
Senior U.S. officials, led by Vice President
Aides say the administration is pushing Maliki to accept a two-part strategy: using military force to battle the insurgents, while reaching out for political reconciliation with Sunni leaders and groups who are caught in the middle. But the White House is reluctant to get too involved for fear it will be drawn into the conflict.
The administration also sought to break a logjam in Congress, where key lawmakers have blocked a White House proposal since July to sell as many as 30 Apache heavily armed attack helicopters to Iraq, and to lease 10 more.
The chairman of the
"The question is whether the Maliki government would use those aircraft … only against violent extremists … and not to further sectarian political objectives," Sen.
Adam Sharon, a committee spokesman, said Friday that the administration was addressing Menendez's concern so the sale could proceed.
Even if the Apache deal is approved, delivery of the first aircraft is likely to be months away. They thus probably will not be available for any military operation aimed at retaking Fallouja and Ramadi, another insurgent stronghold that once saw heavy U.S. fighting and casualties.
The Pentagon is also drafting a plan to begin training small groups of Iraqi soldiers in a third country, possibly Jordan, according to a senior U.S. official.
The plan, first reported by the
Like the Apache helicopter sales, new training programs are not likely to help Iraq through its current crisis in Anbar.
The U.S. began secretly flying unarmed surveillance drones over western Iraq in November and shared the intelligence with Maliki's government. But Maliki, who is wary of appearing to be in America's sway, ordered the flights halted last month and has not allowed them to resume, officials said.
With few Americans paying attention, or eager to reengage with Iraq, its troubles may stay under the radar in Washington — except for those who fought in the unpopular war.
"We used to plant the flag in the ground and say, 'These are our allies,' " said Iscol, the Marine captain who fought in Fallouja in 2004 and now runs a high-tech employment company in