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U.S. moves forward with attack helicopter sale to Iraq

By Missy Ryan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration notified Congress on Monday of plans to sell 24 Apache attack helicopters to Iraq, part of an effort to bolster the military against al Qaeda-linked militants, after addressing lawmakers' concerns that held up the sale for months.

The Defense Security Cooperation Agency said on its website it had informed Congress of the possible sale of the Boeing Co-built helicopters to the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who is in a standoff with Islamist militants in the western province of Anbar two years after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

The administration also notified Congress of plans to lease Iraq up to six Apaches, which a U.S. defense official said would be used for training purposes until the purchased Apaches were delivered. The cost of the purchased Apaches, and the equipment and support that accompanies them, is worth about $4.8 billion, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency said.

On Sunday, Iraqi forces intensified air strikes and artillery fire on the city of Falluja. The conflict in Anbar has focused Washington's attention in Iraq as fears grow about spillover from the war in neighboring Syria.

The Obama administration is also seeking to expedite delivery of fighter jets, missiles, surveillance drones and other weaponry to Iraq.

But the Apache sale was held up for months by concerns from lawmakers about how the helicopters would be used.

Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, withheld support for those plans because of concerns about how Washington could ensure that security forces under Maliki, a Shi'ite increasingly at odds with minority Sunnis, use the helicopters prudently.

A Senate aide said that the committee had signed off on the lease and sale of the helicopters after the State Department "engaged with us extensively this month."

"Based upon these discussions, the committee has signed off on the lease and sale of the Apaches," the aide said.

The Pentagon agency also announced the possible sale of support equipment for the leased Apaches totaling $1.37 billion and including Hellfire missiles and launchers, and pilot night-vision sensors. In addition to Boeing, principal contractors will be Lockheed Martin Corp, General Electric Co and Robertson Fuel Systems.

Menendez had also voiced concern about whether officials were keeping Congress sufficiently informed about efforts to ensure Iraq does not permit Iran to carry weapons to Syria across Iraqi airspace.

Many in Washington view Maliki with suspicion because of his close ties with Iran and his strained relations with Iraq's minorities. But Maliki has been a U.S. ally on security, and could win a third term in elections in April.

Vice President Joe Biden spoke with Maliki on Sunday, and praised steps his government has made to draw Sunni tribesmen into Iraqi security forces.

The administration also notified Congress last week of plans to sell 500 Hellfire missiles to Iraq, part of a package of 'replenishment' supplies that Maliki requested this month.

(Reporting by Missy Ryan; Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Grant McCool and Peter Cooney)

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