WASHINGTON (AP) — With the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq in its final days, President Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will meet at the White House on Monday to discuss the next phase of the relationship between their countries.
They will have plenty to discuss.
The withdrawal of all American troops on Dec. 31 marks the end of a nearly nine-year war that has been deeply divisive in both the U.S. and Iraq. While Mr. Obama and Mr. al-Maliki have pledged to maintain strong ties, the contours of the partnership between Washington and Baghdad remain murky, especially with Iran eager to assert influence over neighboring Iraq. Serious questions also remain about Iraq’s capacity to stabilize both its politics and its security.
Yet the end of the war still marks a promise kept for Mr. Obama, one the White House is eager to promote. In addition to his meeting with Mr. al-Maliki, Mr. Obama will mark the milestone Wednesday when he speaks to troops at North Carolina’s Fort Bragg. And he thanked service members and their families for their sacrifices when he attended the annual Army-Navy football game Saturday.
The number of U.S. troops in Iraq has dwindled to about 6,000, down from 170,000 at the war’s peak in 2007.
Monday’s meeting between Mr. Obama and Mr. al-Maliki is expected to focus heavily on how the U.S. and Iraq will continue to cooperate on security issues without the presence of American troops. Iraqi leaders have said they want U.S. military training help for their security forces but have been unable to agree on what type of help they would like or what protections they would be willing to give American trainers.
The White House said the two leaders also would discuss cooperation on energy, trade and education.
Mr. Obama and Mr. al-Maliki also will hold a joint news conference at the White House, then lay wreaths at Arlington National Cemetery, where some of the nearly 4,500 Americans killed in the Iraq war are buried.
Mr. al-Maliki has insisted that Iraq will chart its future according to its own national interests, not the dictates of Iran or any other country. Some U.S. officials, however, have suggested that Iranian influence in Iraq would inevitably grow once American troops depart. Both countries have Shiite majorities and are dominated by Shiite political groups. Many Iraqi politicians spent time in exile in Iran during Saddam Hussein’s repressive regime, and one of Mr. al-Maliki’s main allies — anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr — is believed to spend most of his time in Iran.
Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that how Baghdad chooses to orient itself will significantly influence the future of Iraq’s relationship with the U.S.
“A lot of this really comes down to, what kind of role is Iraq going to play in regional security?” Mr. Alterman said. “Is it going to be a place where bad people come and go, or is it going to play a role in calming down a region that needs some calming down?”
The first hints as to how Iraq will assert itself in the region may come from how it handles the troubles in Syria, where a bloody government crackdown on protesters has killed more than 4,000 people, according to the United Nations.
The Obama administration has called for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down, but Iraq has been much more circumspect, with Mr. al-Maliki warning of civil war if Mr. Assad falls and abstaining from Arab League votes suspending Syria’s membership and imposing sanctions. Those positions align Iraq more closely with Iran, a key Syrian ally.
The U.S. has warned Iraq’s neighbors that even though American troops are leaving, the U.S. will maintain a significant presence there. About 16,000 people are working at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, making it America’s largest mission in the world.