WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki met Friday to discuss how their nations might push back against a recent spate of violence in Iraq by al Qaida.
Neither leader made any new announcements for U.S. commitments, but Obama pledged to continue counterterrorism support and help build an inclusive and democratic Iraq.
Although Iraq's made significant progress in areas like oil production and a range of other reforms that have taken place, unfortunately al Quida has still been active and has grown more active recently, the president said after the meeting. We had a lot of discussion about how we can work together to push back against that terrorist organization.
To those who oppose American military strikes in Syria, Malikis visit to Washington to seek more help for his fight against al Qaidas resurgence might appear as a timely cautionary tale, a reminder of how a U.S. intervention can backfire and result in fragile states that are vulnerable to the Middle Easts darkest forces. In that respect, the lesson makes Obamas reluctance to wade into Syria look prudent.
Yet the trip also leaves his administration with a tricky dilemma. The U.S. occupation of Iraq laid the groundwork for what today is a vulnerable state in a volatile region, so should Washington send more aid to bolster the government or hold off in protest of Malikis heavy-handedness with dissidents and out of wariness over his ties to Iran and Syria?
At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney sidestepped questions about whether Obama would be willing to offer Iraq additional aid, saying only that continued assistance is necessary.
Targeted foreign assistance to Iraq remains an essential piece of our engagement, and it helps cement the United States enduring partnership with Iraq during this important period of transition, Carney said. Suggestions that we deny security assistance would only serve to undermine our relations with Iraq, decrease our influence and impede progress toward our long-term efforts in the region.
Maliki engaged in a series of meetings this week in Washington, culminating in a two-hour talk Friday with Obama. The two leaders spoke about economic and regional issues, as well as nearby problems in Syria and Iran.
We have a common vision about all the issues we discussed when it comes to diagnosing the return of terrorism and we talked about how to counter terrorism, Maliki said. We do know that the democratic experience in Iraq is nascent and fragile, but it was born very strong. And we need to continue enhancing it and consolidating it because democracy is very important. . . . Democracy needs to be strong, and we are going to strengthen it because it only will allow us to fight terrorism.
Not only is Iraq once again consumed by violence last month alone, more than 600 people died in terrorist attacks but the countrys progress toward democracy has been stunted by Malikis cronyism, the governments rampant corruption, institutionalized sectarianism and a perennially weak security apparatus, according to analysts whove closely monitored Iraq before and since the U.S. military withdrawal at the end of 2011.
Analysts describe a trillion-dollar democracy-building experiment, now a decade old, that so far has yielded another budding Arab strongman with ties to Iran and plans to seek a third and possibly even fourth term, according to the premiers recent interviews. While hes loyal to the conservative Shiite Muslim Islamist Dawa Party, analysts say, Malikis main problem is turning out to be his authoritarian, rather than sectarian, tendencies.
No wonder, then, that some U.S. lawmakers are hesitant about Malikis quest for more U.S. funding and partnership for counterterrorism tools. An influential group of senators sent a strongly worded letter to Obama this week, saying Malikis mismanagement had contributed to the spike in violence. Others have issued statements setting conditions for any increase in U.S. aid.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said Malikis style of governance has reopened sectarian divisions rather than united the Iraqi people and that any expansion of U.S. assistance should be contingent on his keeping distance between Iraq and the Iranian and Syrian regimes.
Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said hed spoken to Maliki this week and urged him to do more to reconcile with his political opponents on key issues in order to marginalize the terrorists and militants who threaten to draw Iraq into another deadly civil war by exploiting these disagreements.
But some analysts say a primarily sectarian or ethnic reading of Iraqi politics is outdated and that Malikis power grab goes deeper than just trying to outmaneuver the Sunni Muslims and the Kurds.
Kirk Sowell, a Jordan-based political risk consultant whos the editor of Inside Iraqi Politics, a subscription newsletter that analyzes Baghdad politics, said Maliki was more moderate than most other prominent Shiite politicians when it came to dealing with Sunnis. Sowell said Sunnis were kept out of all sensitive security posts as were any Shiite rivals Maliki didnt trust but that they had control of other ministries that Maliki left alone as long as they didnt challenge his authority.
The result is less a government than a set of fiefdoms with little oversight or cohesion. If it eventually passes, electoral legislation thats stuck in the Iraqi parliament will only help consolidate that setup by making it harder for smaller parties to emerge and make noise about state corruption or the performance of ministries.
Theres not going to be any sort of fresh blood, Sowell lamented.
Maliki, whose old election slogan was state of law, now makes arrest warrants for dissidents appear and vanish at will, Sowell said. Hes defied the constitution on several occasions, sidestepping its requirement for parliamentary approval of division commanders and refusing to appear before legislators for questioning.
He also turns a blind eye to deadly attacks on the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, an Iranian dissident group whose members are living in a camp in Iraq where theyve repeatedly come under attack, most likely by pro-Iranian Shiite militants. The groups aggressive lobbying and deep pockets have snagged it many high-profile supporters from the U.S. Congress and military.
Analysts are quick to point out that Malikis crackdown extends to his own sect. When protesters from a Shiite province recently sought to hold a peaceful demonstration about pensions, Maliki made sure they werent issued a permit and then had them locked up when they protested anyway, Sowell said.
The problem is more that he just has no concept of legality, the rule of law, he said.
In the prime ministers only public appearance of the trip, a speech at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Maliki said all the right things, even if they werent exactly true.
He affirmed a close U.S. partnership despite the disapproval of others, meaning Iran. He said hed picked no side in the Syrian conflict, though he allows Iranian planes to use Iraqi airspace to deliver cargo to the Syrian regime and hasnt taken steps to stop Shiite militiamen from crossing the border to help the regime. And he said Iraq didnt have a problem between Sunnis and Shiites, a statement so ludicrous that it was instantly mocked across social media.
When he was asked whether hed seek a third term, Maliki laughed, then said it would be up to the will of the Iraqi people.
Anthony Cordesman, a former senior defense official whos with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in an essay published Friday that the U.S. should capitalize on Malikis visit, even if the substance appears lacking.
The goal, Cordesman wrote, would be to persuade the leader to move toward a more national government and to ease his use of state terrorism and extremism in dealing with opposition. That effort would come despite what Cordesman described as the inherent dishonesty in, essentially, helping an extremist combat extremism.
The issue is not a war where Iran so far has been far more the victor than the U.S.; it is a future where any degree of growing Iraqi strength and independence from Iran is a vital strategic interest of the United States, Cordesman wrote. Iraqs position is critical to the security of the Gulf and the Arab Gulf states, to the outcome in Syria, to easing the growing struggle between Sunni and Shiite, and Sunni moderates and Sunni extremists.
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