WASHINGTON — Facing a deadly resurgence of al-Qaida in Iraq, President Barack Obama signaled Friday that he will begin increasing U.S. military support for Baghdad after five years of reducing it.
The new U.S. plan represents a remarkable shift for Obama, whose administration trumpeted the 2011 withdrawal of the last U.S. troops from Iraq as a major achievement and has since shifted its attention to other regional challenges, such as Syria, Egypt and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
After a White House meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Obama said he shares al-Maliki’s fears about militants’ growing foothold in Iraq’s western province and will join the Iraqi leader’s effort to crack down. Administration officials said this would include growing intelligence support and new weaponry.
“We had a lot of discussion about how we can work together to push back against that terrorist organization that operates not only in Iraq, but also poses a threat to the region and to the United States,” Obama said.
Closer cooperation also marks an abrupt turnaround for al-Maliki, who openly opposed reaching a deal to keep even a limited number of U.S. soldiers in Iraq after 2011, insisting the country could take care of itself.
After nine years of U.S. occupation, the prospect of closer U.S. military ties remains deeply unpopular with the Iraqi public. But violence in Iraq last month surged to the highest level since 2008, with 964 Iraqis killed, and some fear the country is slipping back into civil war.
Al-Maliki badly needs the kind of help his country received from Washington from 2006 to 2009 in battling Sunni extremists. And the Obama administration, despite a deep reluctance to be further entangled in the Middle East, believes it cannot afford a further strengthening of the al-Qaida affiliate, called the Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant, which has been held responsible for the deaths of 7,000 Iraqis this year alone.
Administration officials say that while they are not ready to send soldiers to Iraq, they will push for Congress to give Iraq the Apache helicopters, missiles and other equipment it is seeking, and will step up intelligence support so that they can help find and destroy the al-Qaida bases.
The group “has a presence in terms of camps and training facilities and staging areas that the Iraqi forces are unable to target effectively,” said a senior administration official who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue. Officials said they believe that al-Qaida, once strongly established in the region, could seek to strike not only in Iraq, but far from its regional base.
The turmoil in Syria has added to the instability, with fighters and weaponry crossing over the border into Iraq.
The plans for Iraq illustrate the challenges facing the White House in its efforts to limit its involvement in the Middle East. While the Obama administration has declared that it will not allow Middle East problems to consume the remainder of its three years in office, events in the region continue to draw attention.
Al-Maliki, who has not visited the White House for two years, spent the week in Washington lobbying administration and congressional officials for more arms, intelligence help and training. Iraqi officials said they did not ask for Special Forces or CIA advisers, but are not ruling out such things for the future. American drone strikes, carried out with the support of al-Maliki’s government, are another option.
Al-Maliki’s critics, who see the Shiite leader as increasingly autocratic and unwilling to share power with Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish minorities, oppose increased American security support, fearing he might use American weapons to attack his domestic political rivals. But al-Maliki’s aides said Iraq could turn to other world powers if the United States turns down its request.
In his appearance with Obama, al-Maliki said: “We have a friendship agreement, and we have a Strategic Framework Agreement, and we need to activate them.”
Many members of Congress left meetings with al-Maliki this week angry and frustrated that the Iraqi leader has not done more to foster an inclusive government with his rivals, and they complained that Iraq continues to allow Iran to fly arms over its airspace to help the Syrian government against rebels there.
Senior U.S. officials say that Iraq has been reducing the number of Iranian overflights and that they will press al-Maliki to curtail them further as part of the increased coordination.
This week, the heads of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees wrote a letter to Obama pressing him to demand more concessions from al-Maliki. Yet they urged further U.S. counter terrorism assistance.
The new terrorist threat is highly sectarian, killing Shia civilians even in playgrounds, and at weddings and funerals. There were 38 suicide attacks in October alone, officials say.
U.S. officials are arguing to Iraq that it cannot relieve the threat by military attacks alone, and needs to work with Sunni leaders and give them more power, as it did during the height of the carnage in 2006-2008. Iraqi officials told their U.S. counterparts that they are willing to try this approach.
Obama gently pressed for more inclusivity from al-Maliki, whose government fears a return to power of the Sunni leaders who dominated the Shia majority during the rule of Saddam Hussein.
“We are deeply committed to seeing an Iraq that is inclusive, is democratic, and is prosperous,” Obama said.
Al-Maliki closed his comments by saying, for the first time in English, “So I might see you in Iraq?”
“Maybe sometime soon,” Obama replied quietly, according to a transcript.