By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 23, 2009
President Obama said Wednesday that he is "very encouraged" by Iraq's progress in taking over its own security responsibilities and that the United States is on track to withdraw all its military forces from the country by 2011.
In a brief news conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki after the two met for more than an hour at the White House, Obama acknowledged that there will be "some tough days ahead. There will be attacks on Iraqi security forces and the American troops supporting them. . . . There are still those who want to foment sectarian conflict."
But "those efforts will fail," Obama said as he gently reiterated the U.S. view that Iraq must resolve the internal disputes that continue to cause violence and political turmoil. "America strongly supports efforts by the Iraqi government to promote national unity," he said.
Maliki, whose Shiite-dominated government faces national elections in January, pledged that his government "will work very hard in order not to allow any sectarian behavior an opportunity to flourish."
Despite a recent spike in suicide attacks and roadside bombings, violence in Iraq has declined significantly this year. But the administration is concerned that ongoing political disputes between Iraqi Kurds and Arabs, between Sunnis and Shiites, and within the majority Shiite community will impede progress on economic and governance issues and may flare into another round of serious sectarian strife.
Obama made clear that the issue was a central focus of his conversation with Maliki, who arrived Wednesday morning for his first U.S. visit since Obama's election. "So many Iraqis and Americans have made so many sacrifices on behalf of a better future," Obama said. "Now, as we work to end this war and to look beyond it, we must live up to their example and live up to our own responsibilities to see that their legacy is truly one of greater peace and prosperity."
A senior administration official described Maliki's trip as a "working visit," and the White House has not scheduled any formal social events for the Iraqi leader. Instead, Maliki will spend four days in meetings with U.S. economic, trade, defense and diplomatic officials. He will meet with Cabinet members in those areas, as well as with senior members of Congress and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and will deliver a speech Thursday morning at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
Although agreeing with Obama's emphasis on political unity, Maliki stressed in his public remarks his goal of building U.S. economic support and investment during the trip, and Baghdad's need for U.S. help in disentangling Iraq from U.N. sanctions that were imposed during Saddam Hussein's rule and are still in effect.
All of Iraq's oil income is still funneled through and supervised by a U.N. fund, and trade and weapons restrictions remain in force until the U.N. Security Council agrees to lift them. Iraq is especially concerned about reparations, imposed after the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War, that it continues to pay to Kuwait.
Under strategic and security agreements signed with Iraq by the Bush administration in December, the United States pledged not only a phased withdrawal of its troops -- beginning with the departure of combat forces from Iraqi cities and towns that was completed last month -- but also assistance in removing the U.N. restrictions.
"President Obama and the American administration agree with us that Iraq is no longer representing a threat to international peace and security," Maliki said, noting that "we are paying the price . . . from the previous regime." He said Obama made a "clear commitment" to support the removal of international sanctions.
Obama agreed that "this is an area that Prime Minister Maliki emphasized" during their talk. "And we have made a strong commitment to work with Iraq to get out of the . . . constraints that were imposed after the Gulf War," he said. "I think it would be a mistake for Iraq to continue to be burned by the sins of a deposed dictator."
The United States, Obama said, intends to be "very constructive" in helping Iraq resolve all remaining international disputes. Maliki met with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Security Council members in New York before his arrival in Washington.
Both leaders emphasized the positive elements in their countries' military relationship, acknowledging some disagreements as U.S. forces have turned security responsibilities over to the Iraqis but insisting that things are on the right track. "Those who thought that Iraqi forces, if the American forces can leave, will be incapable of imposing peace and security, these people proved to be wrong," Maliki said through an interpreter.
"Overall," Obama said, "we have been very encouraged by the progress that has been made." He said he was "especially pleased" that Maliki will visit Arlington National Cemetery during his visit to lay a wreath in honor of U.S. service members killed in Iraq.