Iraq’s Maliki brings wish list to Washington. Why are officials unmoved?

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, meeting with President Obama Friday, is asking for equipment to help fight a growing insurgency. A half-dozen senators wrote an open letter outlining their concerns about Iraq.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Barack Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki shakes hands, Friday, following their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington.

As Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met with President Obama, lawmakers made it clear that they feel uncompelled to fulfill the wish list he brought with him – for Black Hawk helicopters, F-16 fighter jets, drones, and other weapons that he says will help him fight a growing insurgency.

Most US officials agree that Al Qaeda affiliates are gaining ground in Iraq and violence is intensifying, with an average of 68 car bombings per month and more than 7,000 civilians killed in 2013.

So why is official Washington, for the most part, unmoved?

A letter signed by both the top Democrat and the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee – as well as by the longtime champion of a US troop surge in Iraq, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona – offers some hints.

Mr. Maliki’s “mismanagement of Iraqi politics is contributing to the recent surge of violence,” they write, “by too often pursuing a sectarian and authoritarian agenda.”

This failure of governance, they say, is in turn “driving many Sunni Iraqis into the arms of Al Qaeda in Iraq and fueling the rise of violence, which in turn is radicalizing Shia Iraqi communities and leading many Shia militant groups to remobilize.”

They then issue a warning: “These were the same conditions that drove Iraq toward civil war during the last decade, and we fear that fate could befall Iraq once again.”

The letter was signed by a half-dozen senators, but the sentiments are widely held. “There’s a perception around Washington that in many ways, Maliki is as much the problem as he is the solution,” says Jacob Stokes, an Iraq researcher with the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) in Washington.

Lawmakers have another major gripe as well: that Maliki has allowed Iran to keep supplying the regime of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad by failing to prevent its neighbor from flying over Iraqi airspace.

“Doing anything that helps Iran is not a good strategy for making friends on the Hill,” Mr. Stokes says.

Maliki has said that perhaps if he had the Apache helicopters and fighter jets he is asking for, Iran would be less likely to use Iraqi airspace for its supply runs to Syria.

This is rather hard to believe, Stokes says. “It’s not as if Maliki is going to start shooting down Iranian planes over Iraqi airspace, especially because a lot of his support base is based in or has sympathies with the Shia government in Iran.”

Equally telling, he adds, is the fact that Maliki “hasn’t even lodged complaints with the Iranian government; he’s allowing it straight up.”

So how best to proceed? Senators McCain; Carl Levin (D), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee; and James Inhofe, the ranking Republican on the committee, wrote in their open letter to Mr. Obama in advance of his meeting with Maliki Friday that America should nonetheless “step up our counterterrorism support for Iraq.”

This should include greater intelligence sharing, they said. Beyond this, “We must see more evidence from Prime Minister Maliki that US security assistance and arms sales are part of a comprehensive Iraqi strategy that addresses the political sources of the current violence and seeks to bring lasting peace to the country.”

Obama, they add, should “make clear” to Maliki “that the extent of Iran’s malign influence in the Iraqi government is a serious problem in our bilateral relationship.”

That portends some tough choices for Maliki. “You can’t have it both ways. You can’t acquiesce to Iranians supporting the Assad regime and then also ask Washington to help you out,” says Stokes of CNAS. “You need to choose sides.”

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