Obama meets Maliki as US exits from Iraq
WASHINGTON / BRUSSELS
US President Barack Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki shake hands as they meet in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington yesterday. AP photoWith the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq in its final days, President Barack Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki were scheduled to meet at the White House to discuss the next phase of the relationship between their countries.
The U.S. and Iraqi leaders “will hold talks on the removal of U.S. military forces from Iraq, and our efforts to start a new chapter in the comprehensive strategic partnership between the United States and Iraq,” the White House said.
The withdrawal of all American troops on Dec. 31 marks the end of a nearly nine-year war that has been deeply divisive in both the U.S. and Iraq. While Obama and al-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. And serious questions remain about Iraq’s capacity to stabilize both its politics and security.
Yesterday’s meeting between Obama and al-Maliki was expected to focus heavily on how the U.S. and Iraq will continue to cooperate on security issues without the presence of American troops. Iraqi leaders have said they want U.S. military training help for their security forces but have been unable to agree on what type of help they’d like or what protections they would be willing to give American trainers. Around 6,000 US troops remain stationed in the country on three bases, down from peaks of nearly 170,000 soldiers and 505 bases.
The White House said Obama and al-Maliki would also discuss cooperation on energy, trade and education. Looming over the talks are concerns among U.S. officials over how Iraq’s relationship with Iran will develop with a significantly smaller U.S. presence in the region.
Al-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 U.S. officials have suggested that Iranian influence in Iraq would inevitably grow once American troops depart. Both countries have Shiite majorities and are dominated by Shiite political groups. Many Iraqi politicians spent time in exile in Iran during Saddam’s repressive regime, and one of al-Maliki’s main allies, anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, is believed to spend most of his time in Iran.
NATO to end its training mission in Iraq
The meeting comes as Iraq’s top security adviser said that NATO will mirror the nearly-complete pullout of U.S. forces by withdrawing its Iraq training mission at year’s end after Baghdad refused to grant it legal immunity. “We are sorry that NATO has advised that it will withdraw its mission from Iraq... because immunity is something that is out of the government’s reach,” National Security Adviser Falah al-Fayadh said in an interview aboard a flight transporting Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to Washington.
NATO confirmed it will permanently shut down its military training mission in Iraq at the end of this month and withdraw all its soldiers from the country by Dec. 31. Officials had said that talks on extending the eight-year mission were stalled over NATO’s request for legal immunity for the foreign trainers, an issue that earlier torpedoed plans to keep a residual U.S. military presence in the country.
For his third visit to the United States since coming to power in May 2006, Maliki is being accompanied by Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, Culture Minister and acting Defense Minister Saadun al-Dulaimi, Transport Minister Khayrullah Hassan Babakir, Trade Minister Hadi al-Ameri and National Security Adviser Falah al-Fayadh. Also on the trip are National Investment Commission chief Sami al-Araji and Maliki’s chief adviser and former oil minister Thamer al-Ghadban.