The Obama administration has repeatedly asked congress to exempt its military effort against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from a longstanding ban on US assistance to torturers and war criminals, highlighting doubts about finding “clean” American allies in a region wracked by ethnic animosity and religious extremism.
The latest proposal is included in a 10 November request to Congress for $1.6bn to train Iraqi and Kurdish forces to fight ISIS as part of a $5.6bn request to expand the US mission in Iraq. The proposal sets up a fight with key senate democrats, who blocked two earlier requests for such an exemption, according to documents and interviews.
The 1997 Leahy Law, named after democratic senator Patrick Leahy, bars the US from funding military units suspected of “gross human rights violations,” which include murder, torture and extrajudicial imprisonment.
Top military officers have long complained that the law slows their work with local forces, while human rights activists call it an important safeguard against US complicity in abuses by unsavoury allies.
The Obama administration’s written proposal includes a blanket exemption from the Leahy provisions and related constraints as it trains and equips Iraqi and Kurdish forces to fight ISIS.
A spokesperson for the national security council, Alistair Baskey, said the waiver was designed to cut through procurement red tape but “is not intended to alter our practices with respect to human rights-related laws, including the Leahy law”.
However, the language allows the defence secretary to waive “any” provision that would “prohibit, restrict, limit or otherwise constrain” the war spending. Senate aides say there is no doubt it would waive the human rights requirements.
Iraqi government forces, the main intended recipients of the new aid were notorious for human rights abuses under the previous prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. In July, a United Nations human rights report documented allegations of atrocities by the government, including shelling civilians and executing Sunni detainees.
The Associated Press reported this week that Shi’ite militias backed by Baghdad are engaging in brutal acts as they battle ISIS, a Sunni Muslim group, and there are allegations of mass killings of Sunnis.
Leahy and other democrats will oppose a blanket waiver, said aides who declined to be quoted by name.
“It would be short-sighted, irresponsible and harmful to our interests not to do everything feasible to prevent the misuse of US assistance when it can mean the lives and deaths of innocent people”, Leahy told the AP.
Two similar exemption requests were quietly rebuffed by congress in a defence bill passed in September, senate aides said. That bill provided $500m to train the Syrian rebels and a $1bn counterterrorism fund for the Middle East.
In both cases, the Obama administration sought to exempt the funding from all human rights restrictions, records show.