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US Congress should reconsider Iraq helicopters after Iran report: McCain

U.S. Senator John McCain gestures during a session at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos January 24, 2014. REUTER
U.S. Senator John McCain gestures during a session at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos January 24, 2014. REUTER

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Senator John McCain said on Tuesday a proposed agreement to sell 24 Apache attack helicopters to Iraq should be reconsidered because of a Reuters report that Iran has signed a deal to sell Iraq arms and ammunition worth $195 million.

"The Apache sale has got to be on the table. We've got to discuss it," the Republican Arizona senator said when asked about whether the arms sale would affect the plan to sell the Boeing Co. helicopters to Iraq.

"We've got to understand the ramifications of this arms deal. We have to look at it a little more carefully," he said.

Speaking to Reuters outside the U.S. Senate, McCain said he did not know whether any lawmakers as yet planned to stop the proposed sale. Under U.S. rules governing arms sales, lawmakers have until February 26 - 30 days after the deal was filed with Congress - to hold it up.

Reuters reported from Baghdad on Monday that Iran has signed a deal to sell Iraq arms and ammunition worth $195 million, according to documents seen by Reuters - a move that would break a U.N. embargo on weapons sales by Tehran.

Lawmakers and congressional aides said they found the report troubling, but were awaiting more information from President Barack Obama's administration before reacting.

They said Congress had not been informed of any such deal.

McCain, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees is a frequent critic of Obama's foreign policy decisions. He said the reported arms deal underscored his belief that the United States had withdrawn from Iraq too quickly.

"This is a result of our departure from Iraq," McCain said.

The documents obtained by Reuters showed the Iran-Iraq agreement was reached at the end of November, weeks after Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki returned from lobbying Washington for more weapons to fight al Qaeda-linked militants.

A White House spokesman said the Obama administration had raised concerns about the reported Iran-Iraq arms deal "at the highest level" in Iraq. He said Baghdad denied any contracts were signed, and that Washington would follow up.

Many lawmakers are nervous about providing sensitive U.S. military equipment to Iraq, which they worry is becoming too close to Iran.

Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who is chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, had withheld support for plans to sell Iraq the 24 attack helicopters and lease up to another six because of concerns about how Maliki would use them.

The committee signed off on the lease and sale earlier this year after receiving assurances from the State Department.

A spokesman for Menendez said on Tuesday he had no further information about the Apache deal and no immediate reaction to the report of the Iran arms sale.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Bill Trott, Sandra Maler and Andrew Hay)

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