Iraq Asks for Obama’s Help

Obama said Iraq could stand on its own after the last U.S. soldiers left in 2011. Now Iraq’s leader wants help to defeat the Qaeda affiliate that has grown strong in America’s absence.

10.31.13 11:50 PM ET

The leader of Iraq, who publicly endorsed the exit of American troops from his country two years ago, will now be asking President Obama to help him defeat al-Qaeda’s affiliate, which has seen a resurgence in Iraq since America’s withdrawal at the end of 2011.

Al-Qaida in Iraq, now called the Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant, has resurrected itself in the last year, culminating this summer in a daring jailbreak from Abu-Ghraib prison that freed dozens of Qaeda leaders. According to senior administration officials, the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is now based in Syria. In Iraq, al-Qaeda’s campaign of terror has led to a spike in violence levels comparable to those in 2007, at the height of the hard fought counter-insurgency campaign that included a surge of U.S. forces.

Speaking at the U.S. Institute of Peace Thursday morning, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said, “We are talking with the Americans and we are telling them we need to benefit from their experience, from intelligence information and from training from those who are targeting al-Qaeda in a developed, technical, scientific way.” Meanwhile senior U.S. officials working on Iraq policy say they expect Obama to focus on the problem in his meeting Friday with Maliki and are looking to help improve Iraq’s capabilities to fight terrorism.

For both Obama and Maliki, a new counterterrorism cooperation package represents a marked change. Until this summer, Maliki had largely spurned American involvement in his country, choosing instead to deepen Iraq’s ties to its neighbor Iran. The Obama administration defended its decision in 2011 to end negotiations with Maliki over an extension of the U.S. troop presence in Iraq, stating that the administration judged Iraq to be capable of meeting security challenges without U.S. troops on the ground.

There are limits to what Obama is likely to agree to when he meets with Maliki at the White House and it’s unlikely any new U.S. aid to Iraq will include the return of American soldiers to the country, at least for now. “I would not anticipate U.S. trainers going back into Iraqi soil,” one senior administration told reporters this week. Nonetheless the White House is pressing Congress to allow the delivery of Apache attack helicopters and planning to increase intelligence sharing with Maliki’s government in light of the rise of al-Qaeda.

State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Thursday that increased counterterrorism cooperation would be a focus in Friday’s meeting at the White House between Maliki and Obama.

“We believe that targeted foreign assistance of this kind is beneficial to the United States,” she said. “It helps cement our relationship, our engagement, and our enduring partnership with Iraq.”

A senior administration official this week described the new counterterrorism assistance as helping “the Iraqis have a better vision of what they face so they can target it effectively.”

The Obama administration maintains that some intelligence and counterterrorism cooperation was maintained after all U.S. troops left Iraq at the end of 2011, but that cooperation was limited because the U.S. never secured a follow on Status of Forces Agreement, which would have allowed the U.S. to use Iraqi bases necessary to launch drones and spy planes. Instead, drones and spy planes today are flown out of a nearby base at Incirlik, Turkey. 

The prospect for more assistance to Maliki’s government comes at a moment when relations between the countries have cooled. The State Department has publicly criticized Maliki for his handling of refugees affiliated with the anti-Iranian group known as the Mojahedin-e-Khalq. On September 1, Iraqi forces stormed a refugee camp housing the group, killing several of its members.

The White House has also been frustrated by Maliki’s inability or unwillingness to stop Iranian cargo planes from flying over its territory to supply the regime of Bashar al-Assad as it fights to put down Syria’s rebellion. Since the end of 2011, Iraq’s Sunni vice president has had to live in exile after a court sentenced him to death following what many observers believed were politically motivated charges. 

Kim Kagan, the president for the Institute for the Study of War, said, “I am worried that Maliki will use Iraq’s military and U.S. assistance against his political opponents or constituencies that oppose his government.” But Kagan also said she did not think Iraq’s security forces could handle al-Qaeda on its own.

The heads of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees wrote to Obama this week, demanding he press Maliki to pursue political reconciliation and adhere to the rule of law in Iraq. But even while criticizing the Iraqi government, they called on Obama to increase counterterrorism aid to the Maliki government.

“It is in our national security interest,” they wrote, “to enhance the effectiveness of Iraq’s security forces, especially through greater intelligence sharing.”