Updated 4:53 p.m. | In a rare foray into U.S. military activities, Speaker John A. Boehner called on President Barack Obama to take a "more active role" in Iraq.
Without being prompted by a reporter question, Boehner inserted himself into the news of growing violence in Iraq by addressing "the ongoing threat of al-Qaida in Iraq."
"Precious American blood was spilled and national treasure was expended helping the Iraqis remove a brutal dictator and repelling terrorist elements determined to stamp out human freedom and dignity," the Ohio Republican said. "That progress is now threatened and, in the case of Fallujah, has been reversed."
There have been recent reports of Iraqi troops being defeated by what the Iraqi military says are al-Qaida militants. The Obama administration has said it would help Iraqi forces by providing surveillance drones.
But that doesn't appear to have satisfied Boehner, who played a key role rallying GOP support for the Iraq war "surge" in 2007.
At issue, according to aides, is the lease of about 10 Apache helicopters to Iraq — and the sale of about 30 more Apaches (though those would be three years away from delivery, according to a Senate Democratic aide familiar with the issue). The Senate aide also predicted that the earliest the leased helicopters would be available to Iraq would be spring 2014.
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., has blocked the sale and lease of the Apaches since May 2013, citing concerns over the inability to monitor how those helicopters would be used. Menendez is also using the helicopter issue to extract answers regarding flights from Iran to Syria, which fly over Iraqi airspace, that could be carrying military equipment for Syria.
Menendez and Foreign Relations ranking Republican Bob Corker of Tennessee met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in November seeking answers to those questions, as well as other concerns regarding Iraqi government and inclusivity.
“There really wasn’t much of a response," the Senate aide said of the meeting with the Iraqi prime minister. “Those issues were not dealt with by Maliki, or fully acknowledged.”
Menendez maintained his hold on the Apaches. But there has, apparently, been some movement since the November meeting.
Maliki sent a private letter to Menendez on Jan. 3 addressing some of his concerns, and Menendez recently discussed the issue with a senior State Department official.
The Senate aide noted that there was "definitely no doubt" that there was a willingness at the State Department to get Menendez answers that "wasn't there before."
But the process is apparently not moving fast enough for Boehner.
According to a senior House GOP aide, Boehner has noticed the rise in violence in Iraq — and he is concerned vital U.S. national interests are slipping away to al-Qaida.
The aide noted Menendez's obstruction with the Apaches as a reason Boehner felt compelled to address issues in Iraq on Thursday. The president's delegation of important responsibilities on Iraq to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. also seems to have irked Boehner — something he cited himself on Thursday.
The aide noted that it was Biden who called Maliki this week, not Obama.
Boehner said the administration had chosen to "spend much of its time and energy trying to explain why having terrorists holding key terrain in the Middle East is not the president’s problem."
"I think that the president himself ought to take a more active role in dealing with the issues in Iraq," he said.
Boehner stopped short of calling for a U.S. re-entry into Iraq — "I don't think that is called for at this point in time," he said — but he said the United States needs to get equipment to the Iraqis "and other services" that will help with counterterrorism efforts.
Boehner said a status of forces agreement with Iraq should have been agreed to, and the Obama administration "failed to deliver."
"The United States has, and will continue to have, vital national interests in Iraq," Boehner said. "We must maintain a long-term commitment to a successful outcome there. It’s time the president recognize this and get engaged."