Tomorrow when Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki enters the White House to meet his US counterpart, he will do so from a far weaker position than the last time he came to visit.
Last time al-Maliki came to Washington was in December 2011 and he emerged from those meetings with the US President, Barack Obama, triumphant, pleased that the US had pledged support for his party’s government ahead of all others. In fact at a Washington press conference, the American leader praised him as “the elected leader of a sovereign, self-reliant and democratic Iraq”.
But this time, when al-Maliki goes to see the US President it will be, “less like a leader who’s making independent decisions, but more like a follower,” says Thaer al-Ansari, a local political analyst. “That’s what his many demands, his feverish desire to purchase weapons and his efforts to get support for Baghdad’s diplomatic role in the region all amount to”.
On the table for discussion at the meetings that al-Maliki and his Iraqi delegation will have in Washington are subjects such as the threat from terrorism both inside Iraq and globally, the situation in neighbouring Syria and Iraq’s offers to help resolve that conflict as well as how the US can further support Iraq with aid and weapons. They will also discuss the Strategic Framework Agreement that the two countries signed in 2008, and most likely will focus on the section on joint defence and cooperation to combat terrorism.
But there are already indicators that the Iraqi diplomats are not in for a smooth ride. For one thing, attacks on al-Maliki in the US press may well reflect the attitude of the US populace. Supporting a country that basically asked them to leave, and a leadership that’s the result of a now-deeply-unpopular war, is hardly likely to make many American voters happy. Additionally recent US foreign policy has very much been about getting out of the Middle East, rather than getting more involved.
For another, a group of angry senators have sent a letter to the US President telling him that they believe al-Maliki’s mismanagement of Iraqi politics is part of the problem and a reason for the current surge in violence there.
“What he’s done is create a situation where the population is more accepting of what Al Qaeda is doing there because of his lack of inclusiveness,” the New York Times reported one of the senators saying.
Additionally “there is resentment that al-Maliki’s government basically didn’t support the US when it came to the Syrian crisis,” al-Ansari explains. “Washington also doesn’t like the intimate relationship that Baghdad has with Tehran.”
Al-Maliki got to have his say before the Friday meeting, penning an op-ed for the New York Times, where he asked that his American friends have patience with him and his country, as well as dig deep into their pockets.
“He’s trying to market himself,” al-Ansari says. “He knows there are problems with the way he is perceived in the US.”
However that op-ed was balanced by another in the same newspaper, written by two academics who study Iraq, that called on President Obama to carefully consider how he greets al-Maliki’s requests.
“The last time Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri Kamal al-Maliki, visited … it was on a hopeful note,” they wrote. “But Mr Maliki didn’t hold up his end of the partnership. Mr. Obama praised his guest … only to see Mr Maliki return to Baghdad and begin an authoritarian crackdown against Sunni Arab political leaders — members of the power-sharing government backed by the United States.”
“As Mr Maliki prepares to seek a third term in 2014, Mr. Obama should insist that he adhere to democratic norms as a condition of American aid,” they argued. “The United States should be seen as supporting the Iraqi people as a whole, and not favouring any faction or figure. While continuing to condemn terrorism, the United States should also speak out against human rights violations. Too often, Mr. Maliki has misinterpreted American backing for his government as a carte blanche for uncompromising behaviour.”
In an interview with Reuters, an Iraqi national security adviser said that, “the first thing the Prime Minister will ask for is to accelerate the processes for the shipment of drones and F-16s. “The initial response from the U.S. was positive, but it depends on the delivery time. We want them immediately.”
That deal was already done in August this year when the US agreed to supply Iraq with a US$2.6 billion air defence system, including F-16 fighter jets by autumn 2014. And part of the reason for the hurry is supposedly so that the Iraqis can better control and oversee their borders with troubled neighbour, Syria. Many suspect that extremists who fight in Syria are coming into Iraq that way. Then again, anyone opposed to thatrequest may counter that al-Maliki has also been accused of turning a blind eye when it comes to young Shiite Muslim Iraqis going over the border to fight in Syria for al-Assad’s regime.
According to an Iraqi official, who preferred to remain anonymous, the Iraqi Prime Minister “will remind the US president and his deputy of what he said to them last time he was there: that [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad\'s regime will not fall, not in the coming two years anyway. They disagreed at the time, telling him that Syrian regime would be toppled within two months”.
The official also believed that al-Maliki would be sure to complain about the impact of the Syrian conflict on Iraq. Many believe the increasing violence in Iraq can be blamed, at least partially, on the Syrian troubles and the connections between extremists fighting there and extremists in Iraq. Some say the attacks in Iraq by groups with Al Qaeda connections are apparently meant to be punishing Iraq for its position on the issue: although Iraq is meant to be neutral, it also has very strong connections with Iran and Iran supports the al-Assad regime. Al-Qaeda affiliated groups are fighting against al-Assad.
The official says the Iraqi leader “will present compelling evidence of the interference of regional players in Syria – regional players who are also America’s allies – and how their interference has made things worse there.”
That’s a reference to the Gulf Arab states, who are suspected of financing anti-Assad rebels of all kinds in the ongoing regional struggle between Shiite Muslims, who are seen as being led by Iran, and the Sunni Muslims, which is what most of the Gulf Arab states mostly are. Of course, there are many who would say that if he brings that tricky subject up without mentioning his own allies\' - that is, Iranian - support for the other side, then al-Maliki will be acting as nothing more than a mouthpiece for the Iranians. That would be yet another sign of the fact that al-Maliki is approaching the US as a supplicant rather than as a “strong leader”.
Then again as Reuters also reported, “sources close to Maliki, who is positioning himself to win a third term at an election next year, said he may present himself to Obama as a figure who could help Washington explore further a detente with new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.”
Even if al-Maliki returns home with some successes – no doubt, public relations spin will ensure that he does – al-Ansari says, they will come at a price.