President Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki discussed post-war US-Iraq relations at the White House Monday and the two leaders visited Arlington National Cemetery to commemorate the sacrifices of US troops in a nearly nine-year war.
The Iraqi leader is expected to accompany Mr. Obama to North Carolina Wednesday, where the president and Mrs. Obama will thank some of the last of US troops returning from Iraq and assure them that, as Obama declared Monday, they delivered an Iraq “that is self-governing, that is inclusive, and that has enormous potential.”
But as much as most Americans would like to consider the war in Iraq over, the US will have to remain engaged in Iraq – including militarily – if the slim gains the US achieved are not to be lost, some Iraq analysts say.
“It is nice for President Obama and Prime Minister Maliki to join in thanking US forces for their accomplishments and sacrifices,” says Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, but “thanks do not give these achievements strategic meaning.”
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The “real tests” of the US ability to transform “a costly strategic failure” into future success will be twofold, Mr. Cordesman writes on the CSIS website.
First, the US must see Iraq through to ensuring its own internal stability, and second, the US must develop a new Persian Gulf security arrangement – one that effectively limits Iran’s influence, including in Iraq.
It was largely Iranian meddling that caused negotiations this year over extending a US military presence in Iraq to fail, says Frederick Kagan, an Iraq specialist at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington.
“The Iranians succeeded in their goal of seeing the American military presence [in Iraq] come to an end, and that shouldn’t be underestimated,” says Mr. Kagan, a principle architect of President Bush’s 2007 “surge” of troops into Iraq at a time of mounting violence. “At the end of the day, Iran’s ability to influence Iraqi power politics is growing.”
The public comments from Obama and Mr. Maliki Monday were mostly upbeat. Obama said the US will continue programs to strengthen Iraq’s fragile democracy, and he pledged that US-funded training of Iraqi security forces would continue, although he did not offer details.
Obama said that challenges lie ahead for Iraq, both for its nascent democracy and its economy – post-war Iraq appears near the bottom of country rankings by wealth. But he said a recovering oil industry should help deliver accelerated growth rates soon.
Obama also alluded to Iran’s attempts to gain influence over its traditional rival, saying “Iraq’s sovereignty must be respected” and “other nations must not interfere in Iraq.”
Maliki broadly concurred, saying Iraq “is following a foreign policy in which it does not interfere in the affairs of others and does not allow the others to interfere in its own affairs.”
That policy has led Maliki to refrain from pressuring President Bashar al-Assad in neighboring Syria and from asking publicly that Mr. Assad step down, as Obama has. Maliki said his policy was based on recognition of the dangers that sectarian war presents in ethnically mixed countries like Syria and Iraq.
Such conflicts can create “a snowball” that can grow to threaten other countries in the region, he said.
Maliki underscored Iraqi interest in purchasing US weapons systems, saying it was his duty to “complete the equipping of Iraqi forces.” He also noted that Iraq has requested to make a second purchase of US fighter jets – 18 F-16s – and he appealed for congressional approval of the sale.
He also alluded to continuing bilateral cooperation on military trainers, noting in particular that Iraq is purchasing new US weapons systems, “and that requires trainers.”
But more worrisome for some analysts are the question marks hanging over Iraq’s political stability. “We have to be concerned over and very attentive to the behavior of Maliki and his cronies, because they could push the system to collapse,” says AEI’s Kagan.
The trick for the US, he adds, will be in employing “the variety of levers we have at our disposal” – including Baghdad’s military hardware wish list and US diplomatic influence in the region – to steer Iraq in the right direction.
“We’re going to want to use our leverage,” Kagan says, “in a way that encourages the Iraqi state to lean toward the West and not toward Tehran.”