When U.S. President Barack Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sit in the Oval Office tomorrow, there will be a lot of topics of discussion to catch up on: a spike in attacks by 124 percent this year, Maliki’s failure at inclusive governance, and al-Qaeda’s speedy return to Iraq. There will also be a more positive conversation on Iraq’s increased oil production and military aid.
For Baghdad’s strongman, his urgent visit is to request more military equipment from Washington, mainly Apache helicopters, finalizing F-16 fighter jet contracts, and possibly acquiring drones, as one of his aides told Reuters. It is no surprise that the security agenda is the top priority for his visit. Since Maliki came to the U.S., the last time being December 2011, Iraq has witnessed its highest level of violence, with an average death toll of 700 a month. Just this week, ahead of his visit, more than 120 Iraqis were killed by al-Qaeda suicide bombings targeting civilians in cafes and markets.
For Washington, the al-Qaeda resurgence in Iraq is a serious concern and while the Iraqi government sees it mostly as a security challenge, the Obama administration favors tackling the problem “asymmetrically” through a broad strategy. Washington would like to see Maliki doing more to heal the country’s sectarian divide and to make more inroads with its Sunni and Kurdish minorities. Since assuming power in 2006, Maliki, who is extremely fearful to the point of paranoia over the possibility of a Baathist coup, has attempted to solidify his loyalists’ grip on the army. He also slapped the highest-ranking Sunni politician in the country, former Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi with a death sentence, forcing him into exile.
After Obama’s historic phone call to his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rowhani on October 2nd, Maliki is no longer a unique asset in reaching out to Tehran.Joyce Karam
Obama carries a big stick on this visit. Knowing Maliki’s security vulnerability, the U.S. should link any military assistance or intelligence sharing to the Iraqi premier making political progress with his opponents. Integrating Iraqi Sunnis in a political process, working on a new electoral law that offers better representation, reaching an agreement on oil revenues and appeasing tribes in the country’s western region would certainly go a long way in addressing the country’s divisions and isolating al-Qaeda.
While Washington’s influence has certainly declined in Iraq since its withdrawal in 2011, Maliki needs American help as he heads for elections next April, and in bolstering his security credentials which have kept him going since 2006.
The Obama administration cannot afford to lose Maliki at such a critical juncture in regional and Iraqi politics. Even with all his shortcomings, Maliki has key advantages that give him credit in Washington. He has managed to increase Iraqi oil production, has shown good political skill and instinct at outmaneuvering his rivals and maintaining a strong coalition in parliament. Additionally, this year, the Iraqi premier has shown some flexibility in mending relations with the Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, and strengthening ties with Kuwait and Jordan.
Talking Syria and Iran
The Syrian conflict will be very much an issue on Obama and Maliki’s table on Friday. Both share a concern about al-Qaeda and the militant group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant taking advantage of the porous Syrian-Iraqi border and establishing a safe haven in the area.
Iraq is currently seeking more intelligence cooperation from the U.S. to monitor the border.
For its part, Washington will once again request the Iraqi delegation to be more diligent at monitoring and intercepting Iranian flights over Syria, carrying lethal aid to Assad’s regime. This has been an outstanding issue between the two, despite repeated pleas from the United States and its Secretary of State John Kerry to Maliki six months ago.
Some of Maliki’s aides have hinted at his desire to play as a mediator between Iran and the U.S in their rapprochement to resolve the nuclear standoff with Tehran. While this could be a plus for Washington, the Obama administration will be reluctant to take up such an offer.
After Obama’s historic phone call to his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rowhani on October 2nd, Maliki is no longer a unique asset in reaching out to Tehran. He would surely benefit from a regional U.S.-Iranian understanding, but Washington is in no shortage of channels to reach Iran’s government, either through direct means, or via the United Nations, the Omanis or P5+1.
Maliki’s visit, the first in two years, presents Washington with a good opportunity to put forward a political and security roadmap for Iraq ahead of next year’s elections. Sophisticated weapons will not solve Iraq’s problems or guarantee Maliki’s reelection, but a political process might.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam