WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama pledged Friday to help combat an increasingly active al-Qaida in Iraq but stopped short of announcing new commitments of assistance sought by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Al-Maliki came to the Oval Office requesting additional aid, including weapons and help with intelligence, to fight insurgent violence that has spiked in Iraq since American troops left in 2011.
“Unfortunately al-Qaida has still been active and has grown more active recently,” Obama said at the end of a nearly two-hour meeting. “So we had a lot of discussion about how we can work together to push back against that terrorist organization that operates not only in Iraq, but also poses a threat to the entire region and to the United States.”
Al-Maliki declined to discuss the details of his request for U.S. assistance but said the meeting was “very positive.”
“We talked about the way of countering terrorism, and we had similar position and similar ideas,” he said.
Obama said the best way to honor those killed in the Iraq war would be to bring about a functioning democracy. Al-Maliki’s critics have accused him for years of a heavy-handed leadership that refuses to compromise and, to some, oversteps his authority against political enemies. But Obama only praised the prime minister for working to include Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.
“The main theme was that the United States wants to be a strong and effective partner with Iraq, and we are deeply invested in seeing an Iraq that is inclusive, that is democratic and that is prosperous,” Obama said. “And I communicated to the prime minister that anything that we can do to help bring about that more hopeful future for Iraq is something that we want to work on.”
Al-Maliki described Iraq’s democracy as “nascent and fragile” but vowed to strengthen it. “It only will allow us to fight terrorists,” al-Maliki said through an interpreter.
Obama said he was encouraged that Iraqi lawmakers set April 30 as the date for national elections, the country’s first since March 2010. He said an election will show Iraqis “that when they have differences, they can express them politically, as opposed to through violence.”
The United States already provides military aid to Iraq, the legacy of an unpopular war that cost Americans nearly 4,500 troops and more than $700 billion. The White House said among equipment the U.S. has sent since pulling troops out are military planes, helicopters, patrol boats and a surface-to-air missile battery.
Al-Maliki’s visit with Obama was their first meeting since December 2011, when the Iraqi leader came to Washington six days before the last American troops left Iraq. At the time, Obama pledged the U.S. would remain committed to the government they left behind, and helped create.
The troop withdrawal came after al-Maliki’s government refused to let U.S. forces remain in Iraq with the legal immunity that the Obama administration insisted was necessary to protect troops. Obama had campaigned for the presidency on ending the nearly nine-year war in Iraq and took the opportunity offered by the legal dispute to pull all combat troops out.
Sunni Muslim insurgents who had been mostly silenced under the U.S. presence lashed out once the American forces had left, angered by a widespread belief that Sunnis have been sidelined by Iraq’s Shiite-led government. Indiscriminate violence has continued to rise, with the United Nations saying Friday that 979 Iraqis were killed last month alone – 852 civilians and 127 were security forces – and nearly 2,000 more injured.
“The terrorists found a second chance,” al-Maliki said in a speech Thursday at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He said the violence has been fueled by the civil war in neighboring Syria, although he acknowledged that homegrown insurgents are to blame for the vast number of car bombs, suicide bombings and drive-by shootings that have roiled the nation.
The two leaders also said they discussed regional issues, including Syria and Iran. But al-Maliki said the main purpose of his visit was to enhance the Iraq’s relationship and postwar agreement with the United States.
Follow Nedra Pickler on Twitter at https://twitter.com/nedrapickler