- The Washington Times - Monday, December 12, 2011

President Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met at the White House on Monday to mark the end of the war in Iraq and reaffirm their commitment to work together to help the country maintain security and establish economic stability in the years ahead.

“After nearly nine years, our war in Iraq ends this month,” Mr. Obama told reporters at a briefing after the summit. “We’re here to mark the end of this war and to turn the page and begin a new chapter between the history of these two countries.”

The two leaders appeared at a joint news conference after a meeting devoted to forging a new relationship following the tumultuous nine-year American-led military mission that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.

The full withdrawal of U.S. military troops from Iraq fulfills a campaign promise to bring the war to a responsible end, Mr. Obama said.

At its 2007 peak, 170,000 troops were in Iraq. By Dec. 31, the remaining 6,000 are expected to depart.

Iraq has made significant strides but still faces great challenges on the security front, Mr. Obama said. Iraqi forces have been in the lead for the past three years and, for the first time, the country is in the position to lead the next Arab summit. Even so, bombings and attacks by radical Islamist insurgents remain a fact of life for Baghdad and other cities.

Mr. Obama expressed concern about the opportunity for neighboring Iran and Syria to try to influence Iraq once U.S. troops are gone, acknowledging that “Iraq is in a tough neighborhood.”

Mr. Obama has called for Syrian leader Bashir Assad to step down and has supported tough sanctions on Syria to try to end the bloody crackdown on anti-government protesters that has left more than 4,000 dead.

Mr. al-Maliki, speaking through an interpreter, said he backed the democratic “aspirations of the Syrian people,” but noted that he didn’t have the right to ask [Assad] to abdicate” and did not favor the sanctions because they hurt the Syrian people as well as Mr. Assad’s regime.

Mr. al-Maliki went on to say that the U.S. would continue cooperating in Iraq on matters of security, combating terrorism and training and equipping the Iraqi army.

The U.S. also promised to supply Iraq with additional F-16 fighter jets and help rebuild its air force so it can protect its borders.

When it comes to the Iraq economy, Mr. Obama said, oil production is increasing and business is growing even faster than China and India.

Right now, there is “a new Iraq that is determining its own destiny,” Mr. Obama said.

Having called President George W. Bush’s original decision to invade a “dumb war” in the run-up to the 2003 conflict, Mr. Obama Monday said history would judge the wisdom and the effects of the war but Iraq now has “enormous potential” to become a model for others in the region aspiring to establish democracies.

Critics of Mr. Obama’s decision to pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq completely, were not so sanguine about the country’s future.

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said both Mr. Obama and Mr. al-Maliki had failed in deciding to remove the U.S. military before the country had firmly established itself as a secure and sovereign democracy.

Mr. McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee who lost to Mr. Obama in the general election, has pushed for a continued U.S. military presence in the region beyond 2011.

Ken Pollack, who served as director for Persian Gulf affairs at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration and now heads the Saban Center at the Brookings Institute, said Iraq was in better shape when Mr. Obama took office in 2009 than it is now after suffering a series of political and security setbacks, including the infiltration of a number of Iran-backed militias.

“All of the progress that both Iraqis and Americans have made, at such painful and substantial cost, has now been put at greater risk. I hope I am wrong, but I fear I am not,” he said. “It did not have to be this way, and the fact that it is has everything to do with a failure of vision, commitment and leadership both in Washington and Baghdad.”

By withdrawing all U.S. troops, Mr. Pollack said, Iraq is far more susceptible to returning to civil war, which would have a destabilizing effect on the entire region and, in turn, could create a spike in oil prices and hurt our own economy in the process.

“I completely sympathize with the sentiment of the American people that the Middle East is a gigantic mess and we can’t solve it,” he said. “But unfortunately, the Middle East is not Las Vegas. What happens there doesn’t stay there.”

“We learned that lesson on 9/11. When you slap a Band-Aid on the Middle East, it never works. The problems always get worse and the Band-Aid always needs to get bigger.”