Its $11-billion arms sale to Iraq comes at a time of sectarian strife, and the weapons could be used by Prime Minister Maliki to enforce his authority.

The Obama administration is moving ahead with the sale of nearly $11 billion worth of arms and training for the Iraqi military despite concerns that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is seeking to consolidate authority, create a one-party Shia-dominated state and abandon the U.S.-backed power-sharing government.

The military aid, including advanced fighter jets and battle tanks, is meant to help the Iraqi government protect its borders and rebuild a military that before the 1991 Persian Gulf war was one of the largest in the world; it was disbanded in 2003 after the U.S. invasion.

But the sales of the weapons — some of which have already been delivered — are moving ahead even though Mr. Maliki has failed to carry out an agreement that would have limited his ability to marginalise the Sunnis and turn the military into a sectarian force. While the United States is eager to strengthen Iraq's military, at least in part as a hedge against Iranian influence, there are also fears that the move could backfire if the Baghdad government ultimately aligns more closely with the Shia theocracy in Tehran than with Washington.

U.S. diplomats, including Ambassador James F. Jeffrey, have expressed concern about the military relationship with Iraq. Some even said that it could have political ramifications for the Obama administration if not properly managed. There is also growing concern that Mr. Maliki's apparent efforts to marginalise the country's Sunni minority could set off a civil war.

“The optics of this are terrible,” said Kenneth M. Pollack, an expert on national security issues at the Brookings Institution in Washington and a critic of the administration's Iraq policy.

Big-ticket items

The programme to arm the military is being led by the U.S. Embassy here, which through its Office of Security Cooperation serves as a broker between the Iraqi government and defence contractors like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. Among the big-ticket items being sold to Iraq are F-16 fighter jets, M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks, cannons and armoured personnel carriers. The Iraqis have also body armour, helmets, ammunition trailers and sport utility vehicles, which critics say can be used by domestic security services to help Mr. Maliki consolidate power.

“The purpose of these arrangements is to assist the Iraqis' ability to defend their sovereignty against foreign security threats,” said Captain John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman in Washington.

But Iraqi politicians and analysts, while acknowledging that the U.S. military withdrawal had left Iraq's borders, and airspace, vulnerable, said there were many reasons for concern.

Despite pronouncements from U.S. and Iraqi officials that the Iraqi military is a non-sectarian force, they said, it had evolved into a hodgepodge of Shia militias more interested in marginalising the Sunnis than in protecting the country's sovereignty. Across the country, they said, Shia — flags not Iraq's national flag — fluttered from tanks and military vehicles, evidence, many said, of the troops sectarian allegiances.

“It is very risky to arm a sectarian army,” said Rafe al-Essawi, the country's Finance Minister and a leading Sunni politician. “It is very risky with all the sacrifices we've made, with all the budget to be spent, with all the support of America at the end of the day, the result will be a formal militia army.”

Mr. Essawi said that he was concerned about how the weapons would be used if political tension led to a renewed tide of sectarian violence. Some Iraqis and analysts said they believed that the weapons could give Mr. Maliki a significant advantage in preventing several Sunni provinces from declaring autonomy from the Central government.

“Washington took the decision to build up Iraq as a counterweight to Iran through close military cooperation and the sale of major weapon systems,” said Joost Hiltermann, the International Crisis Group's deputy programme director for the Middle East. “Maliki has shown a troubling inclination toward enhancing his control over the country's institutions without accepting any significant checks and balances.”

Uncertainty over Mr. Maliki's intentions, and with that the wisdom of the weapons sale, began to emerge even before the last U.S. combat forces withdrew 11 days ago. Mr. Maliki moved against his Sunni rivals, arresting hundreds of former Baath Party members on charges that they were involved in a coup plot. Then security forces under Mr. Maliki's control sought to arrest the country's Sunni Vice-President, who fled to the semiautonomous Kurdish region in the north. In addition, Mr. Maliki threatened to release damning information on other politicians.

With these actions plunging the country into a political crisis, a few days later, Mr. Maliki said the country would be turned into “rivers of blood” if the predominantly Sunni provinces sought more autonomy.

This was not a completely unforeseen turn of events. Over the summer, the Americans told high-ranking Iraqi officials that the United States did not want an ongoing military relationship with a country that marginalised its minorities and ruled by force.

Pentagon and State Department officials say that weapons sales agreements have conditions built in to allow U.S. inspectors to monitor how the arms are used, to ensure that the sales terms are not violated.

“Washington still has considerable leverage in Iraq by freezing or withdrawing its security assistance packages, issuing travel advisories in more stark terms will have a direct impact on direct foreign investment, and reassess diplomatic relations and trade agreements,” said Matthew Sherman, a former State Department official who spent more than three years in Iraq. “Now is the time to exercise some of that leverage by publicly putting Maliki on notice.”

— New York Times News Service

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