WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met at the White House on Monday to discuss the next phase of the relationship between their countries, with the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq facing its final days.
The withdrawal of all American troops on Dec. 31 marks the end of a nearly nine-year war that has been deeply divisive in both the U.S. and Iraq.
While Obama and al-Maliki have pledged to maintain strong ties, the contours of the partnership between Washington and Baghdad remain murky, especially with Iran eager to assert influence over neighbouring Iraq. And serious questions remain about Iraq’s capacity to stabilize both its politics and security.
Yet the end of the war still marks a promise kept for Obama, one the White House is eager to promote. In addition to his meeting with al-Maliki, Obama will mark the milestone Wednesday when he speaks to troops at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.
The number of U.S. troops in Iraq has dwindled to about 6,000, down from 170,000 at the war’s peak in 2007.
Obama, along with Vice-President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, met with al-Maliki in the Oval Office.
The meeting was expected to focus heavily on how the U.S. and Iraq will continue to co-operate on security issues without the presence of American troops.
Iraqi leaders have said they want U.S. military training assistance for their security forces but have been unable to agree on what type of help they’d like or what protections they would be willing to give American trainers.
The White House said Obama and al-Maliki would also discuss co-operation on energy, trade and education.
Obama and al-Maliki will also hold a joint news conference at the White House and then lay wreaths at Arlington National Cemetery, where some of the nearly 4,500 Americans killed in the Iraq war are buried.
Looming over the talks are concerns among U.S. officials over how Iraq’s relationship with Iran will develop with a significantly smaller U.S. presence in the region.
Al-Maliki has insisted that Iraq will chart its future according to its own national interests, not the dictates of Iran or any other country.
But some U.S. officials have suggested that Iranian influence in Iraq would inevitably grow once American troops depart.
Both countries have Shiite majorities and are dominated by Shiite political groups. Many Iraqi politicians spent time in exile in Iran during Saddam’s repressive regime, and one of al-Maliki’s main allies — anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr — is believed to spend most of his time in Iran.
Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said how Baghdad chooses to orient itself will significantly influence the future of Iraq’s relationship with the U.S.
“A lot of this really comes down to, what kind of role is Iraq going to play in regional security?” Alterman said. “Is it going to be a place where bad people come and go, or is it going to play a role in calming down a region that needs some calming down?”
The first hints as to how Iraq will assert itself in the region may come from how it handles the troubles in Syria, where a bloody government crackdown on protesters has killed more than 4,000 people, according to the United Nations.
The Obama administration has called for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down. But Iraq has been much more circumspect, with al-Maliki warning of civil war if Assad falls and abstaining from Arab League votes suspending Syria’s membership and imposing sanctions. Those positions align Iraq more closely with Iran, a key Syrian ally.
The U.S. has warned Iraq’s neighbours that even though American troops are leaving, the U.S. will maintain a significant presence there. About 16,000 people are working at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, making it America’s largest mission in the world.