President Obama’s proud political boast is that he ended the Iraq war. But on Friday, he will come face-to-face with a man who is still fighting it—Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
The Iraqi leader visits the White House as Al-Qaeda sows terror in Iraq’s Shiite community, with a surge of suicide and car bombings, drawing analogies to the darkest days of sectarian bloodletting during the US occupation.
Two years after the last US soldier left Iraq, Americans have largely moved on from a war which killed nearly 4,500 US troops, tens of thousands of civilians and drained the US Treasury.
But the carnage in Iraq—where more than 900 people died in violence last month alone— is stirring fears the country may again slide into an abyss exacerbated by the brutal war rending Syria next door.
In fact, October was Iraq’s deadliest month since April 2008, with 964 people killed and another 1,600 wounded, according to data from the Iraqi ministries of health, interior and defense. The vast majority of the deaths were civilians.
“The security situation is not only bad . . . it not only could reverse all of the gains of 2008, it could tear the country apart if both Maliki and the United States do not act quickly,” said James Jeffrey, until last year the US ambassador to Iraq and now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
General David Petraeus, who led the troop surge that quelled the last sectarian explosion in Iraq, warned in a Foreign Policy article the situation was so dire the sacrifices of US troops could be squandered.
“The news out of Iraq is, once again, exceedingly grim,” Petraeus wrote, accusing Iraqi leaders of sectarian infighting and of wasting a chance for a better future.
Maliki, blamed by some Iraq watchers in Washington for marginalizing Sunnis and sinking a well of sectarian anger for extremists to exploit, is blunt about the challenge.
“The terrorists found a second chance,” he said in a speech in Washington Thursday, warning Al-Qaeda and allied groups were a “virus.”
Maliki has a wish list of US military hardware, including attack helicopters to go with already ordered fighter jets to help his ill-equipped military battle insurgents.
There is a certain irony in his request—given the failure of Iraqi and US negotiators to agree legal immunity for US troops that would have allowed a residual American force to stay behind in Iraq.
Iraq’s slide back into violence has revived questions here about the wisdom of the complete US withdrawal, the Maliki government’s conduct since and America’s future relationship with a nation it invaded in 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein.
Could a prolonged US presence have quelled the Al-Qaeda resurgence? Or was a sectarian breakdown inevitable, given Iraq’s restive neigborhood, fractured ethnic make-up and tortured domestic politics?
The Iraq of November 1, 2013 bears little resemblance to the picture Obama painted two years ago when troops came home, when he hailed the “extraordinary” US achievement.
“We are leaving behind a sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq,” Obama said.
The idea that Obama “ended” the Iraq war—which he once branded “dumb” and built a political career on opposing—underpinned his reelection campaign last year.
“Four years ago, I promised to end the war in Iraq. We did,” he said at his renominating convention.
But when US troops left, the war went on.
Cresting sectarian violence has killed more than 5,400 people so far this year.
Obama’s critics accuse the president of throwing away hard won gains by leaving Iraq prematurely.
“While the Obama administration may seek to avoid blame, or shift blame yet again to the Bush administration, they should not be allowed to avoid their own responsibility for the ongoing deterioration of Iraq,” wrote hawkish Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham in Foreign Policy.
But Obama had public support in leaving a war many Americans saw as a quagmire and may have spared American forces from again being stuck in the crossfire of sectarian strife.
The president is certain to press Maliki to embrace political inclusion during their Oval Office talks Friday.
Senior US officials do believe some progress has been made — approving of Maliki’s recent visit to Anbar province and pointing to scheduled national elections in Iraq early next year.
They also privately note that so far, there has been little resurgence of attacks by Shiite militias in reprisal for activity by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the front group for Al-Qaeda.
Washington is also increasing intelligence cooperation with the Iraqi government as it battles radicals.
“We really want to help the Iraqis have a better vision of what they face so they can target it effectively,” a senior official said, though declined to get into intelligence information.
Maliki is having to make his case for US military hardware amid skepticism in the US Congress of his performance.
“Unfortunately, Prime Minister Maliki’s mismanagement of Iraqi politics is contributing to the recent surge of violence” in Iraq,” wrote a bipartisan group of senators in a letter to Obama this week.
The senators want more cooperation from Maliki in curtailing arms supply flights from Iran to the Assad regime in Syria over Iraqi air space, and worry about Tehran’s influence in Baghdad. AFP