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Specter of Give-and-Take Looms Over Maliki's Visit

By Karen DeYoung and Nada Bakri
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Iraq would like the United States to provide more economic support, help resolve problems with some of its neighbors and -- when asked -- assist in combating the myriad security problems it still faces. Otherwise, it would like the Americans to leave it alone.

For its part, the Obama administration wants Baghdad to stop the sectarian disagreements that continue to impede economic and political progress, show a little more public respect for U.S. sacrifices on its behalf and start behaving like a normal, oil-rich democracy.

Those issues, politely stated, will form the basis of talks during Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's first visit to the Obama White House on Wednesday, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials.

"Both we and the Americans emphasize that the nature of our relationship has changed," Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said in an interview this week. But without much useful precedent, both countries are still feeling their way. Maliki and President George W. Bush spoke weekly during the previous administration, via videoconference. Other than during his April visit to Iraq, where the United States still has 130,000 troops, President Obama has "spoken once or twice" to Maliki since taking office, Zebari said.

Despite what the commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad yesterday called a few "hiccups" in their military relationship, both governments consider the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraqi urban centers last month a success-in-progress. Maliki's description of the pullout as a "victory" for Iraq will allow him to lay a wreath at the U.S. military cemetery in Arlington on Thursday morning, an act that would have been politically impossible for the Iraqi leader just a few months ago.

As Maliki met with U.N. officials in New York on Tuesday, security remained precarious at home, with at least 18 people killed in attacks across Iraq. Blasts rocked Baghdad, Ramadi and Baqubah, underlining the threat that insurgents still pose to Maliki's government.

Iraqis continue to chew over the message imparted during a visit this month by Vice President Biden, who warned that the U.S. commitment to them could end if the country again descended into ethnic and sectarian violence.

"The United States doesn't want to be involved in a domestic conflict that might arise," said Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh. "This is natural. We understand that."

Of Iraq's numerous domestic disputes, the most volatile concern the future of the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk, claimed by both Iraqi Kurds and Arabs, and the related question of the broader internal boundary between Kurdish and Arab Iraq. All attempts at resolution since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 have failed; the issues have impeded passage of laws regulating Iraq's oil income distribution and threaten to undermine national elections set for January.

For the Obama administration, the question is not whether to be involved, but how much involvement is useful and tolerable to the Iraqis. "It's something where we've got to be not too hot but not too cold," a senior administration official said. "If we don't get movement along these internal boundaries, something could flare up" and throw Iraq into chaos. Although U.N. negotiators are working on the issue, the official said, "I think we will have to be engaged."

A Maliki political opponent, who would speak only on the condition of anonymity, said the prime minister was concerned about his arms-length relationship with Obama and wanted to lobby U.S. officials to support his reelection. "He is using the visit to make sure that the U.S. is not against his premiership," the opponent said.

An independent Shiite lawmaker had a different take on Maliki's goals in Washington, where the prime minister will also meet with Defense, State, Treasury and Commerce Department officials as well as U.S. lawmakers. "He wants to see how accurate the information Biden relayed is and what U.S. policy will be over the next period," Wael Abdel Latif said. "At least, he's going to get a sense of what the Americans want from Iraq and what support they can provide, especially with Chapter 7."

Iraqis use that term -- a reference to a U.N. Charter provision giving nations the right to intervene in another country, and in Iraq's case giving international approval to the now-defunct coalition occupation force that followed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein -- to refer to ongoing U.N. resolutions that, among other things, mandate reparations to Kuwait from Hussein's 1990 invasion of Iraq's neighbor.

Five percent of Iraqi oil income -- down from 30 percent immediately after Hussein's forces were driven out of Kuwait by the United States and others in 1991 -- goes directly into Kuwaiti coffers. There are indications that Kuwait is willing to eliminate or sharply reduce the remaining $25.2 billion it is owed, but only if the two countries settle a rancorous dispute over the demarcation of the Persian Gulf waterway between them.

The issue is a sensitive one in Iraq, and Maliki would like the United States to lean on Kuwait to resolve it. "There is no love lost between" the Kuwaiti and Iraqi governments, another senior U.S. official said. Officials in Maliki's government "fear that if they make concessions, they'll be seen as weak in an election year."

At the same time, he said, "it's an emotional issue in Kuwait."

Rather than stepping into the middle of the dispute, the Obama administration is hoping that a U.N. commission, due to issue a report on the matter next week, will resolve it.

Bakri reported from Baghdad.

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