With the US troop withdrawal from Iraq in its final days, US President Barack Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki were scheduled to meet at the White House yesterday to discuss the next phase of the relationship between their countries.
The withdrawal of all US troops by Dec. 31 marks the end of an eight year war that has been deeply divisive in both the US and Iraq. While Obama and Maliki have pledged to maintain strong ties, the contours of the partnership between Washington and Baghdad remain murky, especially with Iran eager to assert influence over neighboring Iraq.
Although serious questions also remain about Iraq’s capacity to stabilize both its politics and security, the end of the war still marks a promise kept by Obama, one the White House is eager to promote.
Yesterday’s meeting between Obama and Maliki was expected to focus heavily on how the US and Iraq will continue to cooperate on security issues without the presence of US troops.
Iraqi leaders have said they want US military training help for their security forces, but have been unable to agree on what type of help they would like or what protections they would be willing to give US trainers.
The White House said Obama and Maliki would also discuss cooperation on energy, trade and education.
The two leaders were scheduled to hold a joint news conference at the White House, then lay wreaths at Arlington National Cemetery, where some of the nearly 4,500 Americans killed in the Iraq war are buried.
Looming over the talks are US concerns about how Iraq’s relationship with Iran will develop with a significantly smaller US presence in the region.
Maliki has insisted that Iraq will chart its future according to its own national interests, not the dictates of Iran or any other country, but some US officials have suggested that Iranian influence in Iraq will inevitably grow once US troops depart. Both countries have Shiite majorities and are dominated by Shiite political groups. Many Iraqi politicians spent time in exile in Iran under the regime of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, and one of Maliki’s main allies — anti-US cleric Muqtada al-Sadr — is believed to spend most of his time in Iran.
Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said how Baghdad chooses to orient itself will influence its -future relationship with the US.
“A lot of this really comes down to, what kind of role is Iraq going to play in regional security?” Alterman said. “Is it going to be a place where bad people come and go, or is it going to play a role in calming down a region that needs some calming down?”
The first hints as to how Iraq will assert itself in the region may come from how it responds to the troubles in Syria, where a bloody government crackdown on protesters has killed more than 4,000 people, according to the UN.
The Obama administration has called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, but Iraq has been much more circumspect, with Maliki warning of civil war if Assad falls and abstaining from Arab League votes suspending Syria’s membership and imposing sanctions. Those positions align Iraq more closely with Iran, a key Syrian ally.
Even though the war is ending, the US will maintain a large presence in Iraq. About 16,000 people work at the US embassy in Baghdad, its largest mission anywhere.