Obama To Meet With Iraqi Leader On Military Aid

Nov 1, 2013
Originally published on November 1, 2013 6:46 am
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It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Iraq's prime minister is meeting today with President Obama in the White House. Nouri al-Maliki is seeking help getting security under control in his country. This morning, the U.N. reported that nearly 1,000 Iraqis died in bombings and other violence just last month. Maliki says his military needs helicopters and fighter jets, to beef up the country's defenses.

The prime minister has been a sometimes-contentious American ally. As NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, the U.S. says he needs a real strategy, not just more weapons.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: One Iraq watcher, Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group, says Nouri al-Maliki is in a bind, as the death toll mounts from attacks on government buildings, police stations, mosques and markets, weddings and funerals.

JOOST HILTERMANN: Maliki is the prime minister of a country that remains profoundly unstable, especially after the departure of American forces two years ago. He still doesn't have an air force. He still doesn't have a good logistical system; and even his intelligence apparatus is in disorder, I would stay.

KELEMEN: And Iraq is facing a resurgent al-Qaida that has U.S. experts worried. A senior administration official says the Islamic state of Iraq in the Levant, as it's now known, operates in Iraq and in Syria, and is an increasing threat to the region. Maliki says he's here to seek U.S. help, and he made his case through an interpreter at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

PRIME MINISTER NOURI AL-MALIKI: (Through translator) We will defeat the terrorists by our local efforts and our partnership with United States...

KELEMEN: While Maliki is asking President Obama for specific weapons to fight al-Qaida, some top senators told Obama in a letter that they think the prime minister's mismanagement of Iraqi politics is contributing to the violence. By pursuing a sectarian and authoritarian agenda, they write, Maliki - a Shiite - is marginalizing Kurdish Iraqis, and driving Sunnis into the arms of al-Qaida.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Frankly, he was not very happy about that letter.

KELEMEN: One of the authors, Sen. John McCain of Arizona says he pressed these issues in his meeting with Maliki, as did other members of Congress.

MCCAIN: We need to see some changes in Iraq. And that means an inclusion of Sunnis who are now, more and more, becoming alienated.

KELEMEN: McCain says Iraq needs only to look back to its recent history, when it relied on local tribes in Anbar province to quell violence there and brought Sunnis back into the political process. Seth Jones, the associate director of Rand's International Security and Defense Policy Center, also sees the so-called Anbar awakening as a good example of how to counter terrorism.

SETH JONES: What we've seen where al-Qaida has been successfully weakened - at least, temporarily - it's been the ability to collect precision intelligence, and also to combat its extremists message on multiple media forums. And that's stuff that can be supported through ways other than heavy weapons.

KELEMEN: U.S. officials say they are discussing that kind of strategy with Maliki, and talking about ways the U.S. can help. It's nudging Maliki on political issues, too, though Jones has his doubts about that.

JONES: I don't know how much influences the U.S. is going to have to significantly shape the domestic political situation in Iraq. It can ask for a range of things. I'd be surprised if the Iraq government agrees to significantly change the way it is operating and its political system.

KELEMEN: In fact, Maliki brushed off criticism about that, insisting through an interpreter that he's just following Iraq's constitution.

AL-MALIKI: (Through translator) And this is something I state clearly. Just let me know when I act in an unconstitutional way. But if I act in a way that is not acceptable to some of our partners, this is something else.

KELEMEN: Another thorny issue for him is his relationship with Iran, and Iran's use of Iraqi airspace to send military aid to Syria to boost Bashar al-Assad's regime. Maliki argues he needs a better air force to control that.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.