WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama assured visiting Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Friday that the United States wants to be a strong partner in bringing about a stable and inclusive Iraq amid a rapid spike in sectarian violence that threatens security across the country.
But following a private meeting in the Oval Office, Obama made no public commitment of military equipment or other assistance that al-Maliki is seeking. The Iraqi leader says U.S. help is vital to containing the security threat in his country posed by a growing al-Qaida.
Obama said he urged al-Maliki to pass an election law so Iraqis can express their differences politically as opposed to using violence. The United States has been seeking to pressure al-Maliki to stop his Shiite-led government’s political mistreatment of Sunnis and hold him accountable for a failure to govern inclusively.
Obama also said he wanted to “work together” with al-Maliki to push back against terrorist groups that endanger not only Iraq, but the entire region.
“Unfortunately, al-Qaida has still been active and has grown more active recently,” Obama told reporters.
The meeting came near the end of al-Maliki’s first visit to Washington in more than two years. He has been lobbying Congress for more security money and to allow the sale of U.S.-manufactured Apache helicopters and other weapons he believes are needed to help stabilize Iraq.
In their brief remarks, neither Obama nor al-Maliki made any mention of military sales or other assistance to Iraq, although Obama did note that it has been nearly two years since U.S. troops left the country.
Al-Maliki told reporters that he and Obama shared “a common vision” about the rise of terrorism in Iraq and how to fight it.
“We had similar positions and similar ideas,” al-Maliki said. “We discussed the details of our cooperation, but the people who are in charge will discuss further details about this.”
Following their meeting, the U.S. and Iraqi delegations issued a joint statement saying they agreed on Iraq’s need for additional equipment to contain the violence.
“Both sides emphasized — on an urgent basis — the need for additional equipment for Iraqi forces to conduct ongoing operations in remote areas where terrorist camps are located,” the statement said. “The Iraqi delegation stressed its desire to purchase U.S. equipment as a means of strengthening long-term institutional ties with the United States, and confirmed its commitment to ensure strict compliance with U.S. laws and regulations on the use of such equipment.”
Al-Maliki has said that the civil war in neighboring Syria and homegrown insurgents have fueled the violence across Iraq, including suicide bombings and drive-by shootings. More than 5,300 Iraqis have been killed this year, with the historic Sunni-Shiite split reemerging as the main internal security threat in the country.
On Capitol Hill, a bipartisan group of lawmakers are holding up a possible helicopter sale out of concern that al-Maliki’s forces could turn the Apaches on domestic political opponents not affiliated with al-Qaida or other terrorist groups. The lawmakers also accuse al-Maliki of turning a blind eye to Iranian aircraft flying over Iraq to supply Syrian President Bashar Assad with weapons and fighters.
Earlier this week, six leading senators — Democrats Carl Levin and Robert Menendez and Republicans John McCain, James Inhofe, Bob Corker and Lindsey Graham — assailed al-Maliki’s “mismanagement of Iraqi politics.” They said his government is beholden to Shiite Iran’s “malign influence” and that the country risks tipping back toward civil war.