WASHINGTON – 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 today, 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 former president George W. Bush spoke weekly, via videoconference. Other than during his April visit to Iraq, where the United States still has 130,000 troops, Obama has “spoken once or twice” to Maliki since becoming president, Zebari said.
Despite what the commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad on Tuesday 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.
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 are 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 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.”