Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in an October 31 address at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) in Washington, called for more support from the United States in countering an ongoing wave of terrorism in Iraq that has been attributed primarily to al-Qaida-backed extremists, as well as for American patience as Iraq tries to build its young democracy amid the country’s deep internal political disputes.
“We will defeat the terrorists by our local efforts and our partnership with the United States,” said Maliki, who leads a Shiite-dominated coalition government and is serving in his second term as prime minister. “We were partners and we shed blood together while fighting terrorists.”
Fueled by a spillover of militants and weapons from neighboring Syria’s civil war and by deepening grievances among Iraqi Sunnis against the Shiite majority-led government in Baghdad, sectarian violence in the country this year has surged, climbing to its highest levels since the bloody cycle of attacks and reprisals in 2006-08. At that time, U.S. forces and Iraqi government security units were fighting the insurgents together. This September, nearly 1,000 Iraqis were killed in terrorist and related attacks, and more than 2,000 were wounded, according to the United Nations. More than 6,000 Iraqis have died in the violence so far this year.
The return of such large-scale violence is raising fears that Iraq could be falling back toward a possible civil war, injecting further instability into a region already roiled by the effects of the Arab Spring uprisings.
Maliki described Iraq’s terrorism challenge as “huge and increasing—and we should face it.” The prime minister, making his first visit to Washington since the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Iraq was completed in December 2011, said he came to Washington “to consolidate the SFA [the bilateral Strategic Framework Agreement] at all levels,” including cooperation on security, trade and investment, reconstruction and education. He will speak with President Obama on Nov. 1 and has already met with Vice President Biden, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and congressional leaders.
The centerpiece of his USIP speech was an appeal for more U.S. support in defeating al-Qaida militants in Iraq. Iraq is seeking additional U.S. weaponry, including Apache attack helicopters and drones, though Maliki’s remarks focused on counterterrorism and intelligence cooperation. “Iraq needs its friends, to benefit from their experience and training,” he said.
Insufficient U.S. and international support, he warned, would “be disastrous for the whole world.” He said his government has a position of neutrality on the Syrian conflict and favors “a democratic, pluralistic regime” resulting from negotiations in Syria, where an array of opposition forces, including radical groups linked to al-Qaida, are fighting to remove Bashar al-Assad from power.
Maliki also acknowledged the need for Iraqi domestic “peace and reconciliation” to defeat terrorists. “Facing terrorism,” he said, “is not only about military force….We need a sound social structure.”
Iraqi oppositionists contend that the country’s minority Sunnis have endured discrimination at the hands of the government and its supporters, been targeted by security forces for mass arrests and harsh treatment and lacked access to due process of law. They argue that Maliki has centralized political power around himself—and allowed official security forces to act in coordination with Shiite armed groups—while ignoring demands by political leaders in some Sunni-dominated areas to govern with greater autonomy.
U.S. officials for years have also urged Maliki to adopt a more inclusive political approach and reach out more energetically to Sunni political figures for the purpose of building national unity and, more recently, for fostering improved internal political conditions to counter the militants.
Maliki was criticized this week by a bipartisan group of U.S. senators. In a letter to President Obama, the senators blamed what they called Maliki’s “mismanagement of Iraqi politics” for contributing to sectarian violence, and said his government was too influenced by Iran. Iraq’s government has allowed overflights of Iranian aircraft bound for Syria that are believed to have carried arms to defend Iran’s ally al-Assad.
Maliki touched on some of those issues in his speech and subsequent comments in response to audience questions. He said that he has always acted legally and that some criticisms reflect the inevitable struggles with overcoming a long dictatorship.
“I never, never stepped on the Constitution,” he said. “Democracy…needs lots of time and solutions, and we have a very heavy legacy.” Further, he said, Iraqis of all religious and ethnic backgrounds have been targeted by terrorists, and all groups are giving support to and sharing information on threats with Iraqi security forces.
As for Iraq’s relationships in the Middle East, Maliki said it “is acting independently and freely and according to its own interests." He added that his government believes it has an interest in “a strong relationship with the United States,” regardless of whatever other countries in the region prefer.
The meeting opened with brief comments by USIP President Jim Marshall; Manal Omar, USIP’s associate vice president for Middle East and Africa programs; and Beth Jones, the U.S. State Department’s acting assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs.
While noting that “Iraq still faces formidable challenges,” Jones said, “Its future looks bright.” She characterized security as “only one aspect of our cooperation” and pledged U.S. assistance for Iraq to meet “all technical requirements to ensure free and fair elections” for parliament in April of next year. Maliki is widely expected to seek a third term as prime minister, though he did not directly answer a question from an audience member about his own political intentions. Maliki met privately at the Institute with USIP and other Iraq specialists after his public address.
The October 31 visit marked Maliki’s second appearance at the Institute, the first having been for a speech in July 2009. USIP has carried on a range of peacebuilding activities inside Iraq since shortly after U.S. and allied forces invaded and forced Saddam Hussein from power in 2003. The Institute has continued to make grants and assist conflict management efforts there after the U.S. military withdrawal, and it maintains a permanent office in Baghdad.
“USIP remains committed to a long-term strategy of supporting peacebuilding institutions in Iraq,” Omar said in an interview. “Iraq is deteriorating in terms of violence, but state institutions and civil society that already exist are in a position to work on resolving conflicts.”