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Senate moves toward supporting U.S. helicopters for Iraq

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate is looking more favorably at a request to provide attack helicopters to Iraq, but a top senator has not yet given the Obama administration a green light for military assistance that Iraq wants to help it rebuff an al Qaeda bid to seize a western province.

Robert Menendez, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has held back on supporting the lease and sale of several dozen Apache helicopters to the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki without certain assurances.

Menendez' concerns have centered around how Washington can ensure that security forces under Maliki, a Shi'ite increasingly at odds with minority Sunnis in Iraq, use the helicopters prudently. He is also concerned about whether officials are keeping Congress sufficiently informed about efforts to ensure Iraq doesn't permit Iran to ship weapons to Syria across Iraqi airspace.

"The administration is now addressing concerns first raised in July that required responses before this sale could proceed," said Adam Sharon, a spokesman for the committee. "Provided these issues are sufficiently addressed, Chairman Menendez will be ready to move forward."

U.S. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner called for the Obama administration to do more to help Iraq battle insurgency but stopped short of calling for U.S. troops to return to Iraq.

"The president himself ought to take a more active role in dealing with the issues in Iraq," Boehner told reporters.

"We need to get equipment to the Iraqis, and other services that would help them battle this counterterrorism effort that they're attempting to do. There are things that we can do to help the Iraqis that do not involve putting U.S. troops on the ground."

Two years after it pulled all U.S. troops from Iraq, the United States is working to speed up shipments of Hellfire missiles, surveillance aircraft and other gear that Maliki has requested to help Iraqi forces rebuff the al Qaeda comeback in Anbar province, where the conflict in neighboring Syria appears to be feeding increased militant activity.

In late October, just before Maliki made a high-profile visit to Washington, Menendez and other leading senators told President Barack Obama in a letter that Maliki must do more to reach out to opponents and to resist Iranian influence.

Senator Lindsey Graham and Senator John McCain, senior Republicans who also signed that letter, said the United States must re-engage in Iraq or risk undermining the security gains that had been made during years of U.S. combat.

"We're about to lose everything we fought for," Graham said on the Senate floor.

After Maliki sent Menendez a three-page letter - which did not address the request for helicopters or other military equipment directly - and as the situation in Anbar looked more dire, Menendez received a call on Tuesday from Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, Senate aides said.

According to the aides, Burns assured Menendez that the State Department was working urgently to provide the committee the assurances it had requested as a requirement for supporting the helicopter delivery once Congress receives formal notification.

A possible shift in Menendez' position was first reported by the New York Times. The State Department is required to notify Congress of any arms sales above a certain amount.

The State Department declined to comment on officials' communication with Congress.

"The administration would certainly support providing Apaches, especially given the situation on the ground," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters. "Obviously, that is something we are working with Congress on."

Even if the Apache deliveries are approved, they won't be provided to Iraq immediately, so they might not make any difference in the conflict in Anbar.

Senator Carl Levin, another leading Democrat, warned that the impact of U.S. military sales was limited in Iraq's growing conflict.

"While an ongoing relationship is in our interests, no amount of military equipment from us will protect the Iraqi people if their government continues to place sectarian goals ahead of sound governance," he said.

(Reporting by Missy Ryan, Patricia Zengerle, Richard Cowan, Eric Beech and David Lawder; Editing by Jonathan Oatis, Dan Grebler and Ken Wills)

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