Obama, Maliki Meet on Future of U.S. Involvement in Iraq

By William Branigin, Karen DeYoung and Nada Bakri
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 22, 2009; 5:12 PM

President Obama urged Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Wednesday to press ahead with national reconciliation efforts and pledged to meet a commitment to withdraw all U.S. troops from the country by the end of 2011.

After meeting with Maliki for more than an hour at the White House, Obama also played down new Iraqi limits on U.S. military operations as "differences in strategy," and he promised U.S. help for Iraq in trying to end its obligation to pay reparations to neighboring Kuwait for the 1990 invasion of that country by the forces of Saddam Hussein.

Maliki, making his first visit to the Obama White House, said after the meeting that Iraqi security forces have become "highly capable" of dealing with domestic threats on their own. He emphasized Iraq's need at this stage for greater economic help and foreign investment.

In a brief joint news conference in the White House Rose Garden after the meeting, Obama said the United States would "continue to provide training and support for Iraqi security forces that are capable and nonsectarian. We'll move forward with our strategy to responsibly remove all American combat brigades from Iraq by the end of next August and to fulfill our commitment to remove all American troops from Iraq by the end of 2011."

He and Maliki "have no doubt that there will be some tough days ahead," Obama said. "There are still those in Iraq who would murder innocent men, women and children. There are still those who want to foment sectarian conflict. But make no mistake, those efforts will fail."

Stressing a need to overcome sectarianism and make room for minorities, Obama said he told Maliki "that Iraq will be more secure and more successful if there is a place for all Iraqi citizens to thrive, including all of Iraq's ethnic and religious groups." He said the United States "continues to support efforts to integrate all Iraqis into Iraq's government and security forces."

Heading into the meeting, Iraqi officials indicated they wanted the United States to provide more economic support, help resolve problems with some of Iraq's neighbors and -- when asked -- assist in dealing with security threats. Otherwise, they wanted the Americans to leave them 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.

In reference to American sacrifices, Obama told reporters after Wednesday's meeting that he was especially pleased by Maliki's plan to visit Arlington National Cemetery during his current trip.

The United States maintains about 130,000 troops in Iraq, down from more than 160,000 in 2007 following a "surge" of reinforcements to suppress rampant sectarian violence. Under a Status of Forces agreement signed during the Bush administration, U.S. troops withdrew from major Iraqi cities by June 30, and all U.S. forces are required to leave the country by the end of 2011. Obama announced in February that he plans to withdraw U.S. combat brigades from Iraq by Aug. 31, 2010, and to gradually pull out the remaining troops until the withdrawal is completed by the 2011 deadline.

Obama said the U.S. transfer of control over cities to Iraqi security forces "should send an unmistakable signal that we will keep our commitments with the sovereign Iraqi government."

Asked whether he had objected to new Iraqi restrictions on U.S. military operations -- curbs that some U.S. commanders say go beyond the agreement -- Obama said: "I think that we have seen both improved capacity and greater confidence on the part of the Iraqi security forces. We're very pleased with that."

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