For Obama, visit with Iraq's Maliki is an easy part of his job

Unlike the battle over health care, the visit offers few potential pitfalls.

Ron Edmonds/AP Photo
President Barack Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki make joint statements to the press Wednesday in the Rose Garden of the White House.

In a week in which President Obama has been castigated by opponents over efforts to reform health care, his visit with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki Wednesday afternoon probably came as something of a welcome relief – and it’s not just because Mr. Maliki was unlikely to accuse the president of being a socialist.

Health care could deliver damaging blows to the president’s domestic clout. But Obama is unlikely to catch much political flak if he fails to convince Maliki to abandon the sectarian politics that, even now, divide Iraq. That's a major shift when compared to his predecessor George Bush, who got America into the war and took hit after political hit on the matter.

Six years after the United Status invaded Iraq, Americans appear relatively unfocused on whether the Iraqi government gets itself on track – something that should give Obama breathing room on the issue. A CNN poll at the end of June found that 73 percent of Americans supported the June withdrawal of combat troops from the cities, even though a majority of Americans expected inter-Iraqi violence to spike as a consequence.

Maliki arrived in Washington Wednesday after visiting the United Nations in New York and urged more investment in his country. (At the UN, Maliki urged the lifting of war reparations that Iraq is burdened with from its invasion of Kuwait.) Obama, in turn, warned Maliki of the costs of ongoing sectarianism. The Iraqi PM said in a Rose Garden press conference that that his government would not tolerate sectarian violence and asserted that the country's security forces are up to the challenge. Obama recommitted America to a full withdrawal in 2011.

But Maliki's protestations to the contrary, renewed sectarian violence remains a distinct possibility. Maliki’s Shiite coalition has alienated many of the Sunni groups that worked with US forces to defeat jihadis in troubled provinces like Anbar. Some critics say his coalition has been unwilling to compromise on matters like oil-sharing with the semiautonomous Kurds in the north.

During a trip to Iraq at the beginning of July, shortly after US combat troops withdrew from Iraqi cities, Vice President Joe Biden warned Maliki and other Iraqi politicians that if sectarian violence flared again, the US would be unlikely to bail them out.

Many analysts agree. They also point out that Maliki – who considers winning a US promise to pull out of Iraq by 2011 his major achievement as prime minister – is as eager for the US to leave on schedule as Obama is. Members of Maliki’s government have been fairly gleeful about the withdrawal of US combat troops from Iraq’s cities.

An Iraqi colonel who runs a combat brigade in Baghdad described US troops a few days ago as being confined now to “prisonlike bases” and explained how he has denied US military requests for passage through parts of Baghdad. Maliki, for his part, is scheduled to visit Arlington National Cemetery on his visit to Washington to pay homage to the American servicemen who have died in Iraq. In a speech at the beginning of the month, Mr. Maliki took much of the credit for improved security in Iraq, and failed to thank American forces -- something which rankled a number of veterans and active duty servicemen. The visit to Arlington may redress that.

General elections next January will show if Maliki is rewarded by Iraqi voters for presiding over the drawdown of US forces.

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