- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 30, 2013

He was an obscure compromise candidate when unexpectedly elected prime minister in 2006. Against all odds, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is still on the job, and holds a worrying level of power in Iraq as he heads into a meeting Friday with President Obama to discuss the still-troubled state of his nation — a decade after the U.S.-led military action that ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.

With Mr. al-Maliki appearing poised to run for a third consecutive term next year, analysts say the challenge now facing the Obama administration is figuring out how to aid Baghdad’s fight against a surging al Qaeda threat, without inadvertently bolstering Mr. al-Maliki’s own rise as the region’s newest strongman.

But as 2013 has brought an average of 68 car bombings a month in Iraq, the administration may have little choice, particularly as it grapples with what are expected to be explicit requests from Mr. al-Maliki for increased U.S. military and intelligence support two years after U.S. military forces withdrew.

SEE ALSO: Iraqi prime minister: U.S. aid needed to battle al Qaeda

“What’s important to understand is that the violence is also related to politics in Iraq,” said Ahmed Ali, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, a conservative think tank.

While U.S. aid, including potentially drones and enhanced intelligence support, may help in the fight against al Qaeda, it will likely come at the price of furthering Mr. al-Maliki’s hold on power, said Mr. Ali. It is “imperative,” he said, that the Obama administration couple any announcement of new aid with a firm assertion that Iraq’s “next elections should be free and fair and that there should not be any political manipulation.”

Michael Knights, a Middle Eastern military and security affairs at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, went a step further. “Signaling that we’re going to provide major weapons purchases with no apparent conditions will make Iraqis think that al-Maliki’s been given a blank check [from Washington] to run the country,” he said in an interview.

At issue are accusations over the past three years that Mr. al-Maliki has emerged as a Shiite strongman, using authoritarian tactics to muzzle opposition parties and exclude the country’s Sunni Muslim minority from power. A report by Human Rights Watch last year said that Mr. al-Maliki’s security forces were suppressing freedom of expression and assembly, had beaten and detained anti-government protesters, and operated a secret prison where suspects were tortured.

“We don’t tend to mention any of this stuff when al-Maliki comes to town. We’re not bringing him over to humiliate him, we’re obviously trying to build the relationship,” said Mr. Knights. “But behind the scenes at least, there should be some free and frank discussions about the extensions of executive power in Iraq, because if al-Maliki wants to continue getting our support, he has to show that he can be trusted.”

The extent to which the Iraqi prime minister is trusted is not entirely clear in Washington. A bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, and Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, wrote President Obama this week that Mr. al-Maliki’s “mismanagement of Iraqi politics” is actually contributing to the surge of al Qaeda-linked violence.

“By too often pursuing a sectarian and authoritarian agenda, Prime Minister al-Maliki and his allies are disenfranchising Sunni Iraqis, marginalizing Kurdish Iraqis, and alienating the many Shia Iraqis who have a democratic, inclusive and pluralistic vision for their country,” the letter said.

Mr. al-Maliki, in a New York Times op-ed piece Wednesday, pushed for “a deeper security relationship between the United States and Iraq to combat terrorism,” writing, “We urgently want to equip our own forces with weapons they need to fight terrorism, including helicopters and other military aircraft so that we can secure our borders and protect our people,” noting that the Iraqi military does not have a single jet fighter.

Mr. al-Maliki did not mention that the U.S. already set in motion a plan last summer to sell Iraq roughly $4.3 billion in military equipment — reportedly including helicopters and ground-to-air rockets.

A senior administration official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity Wednesday, refused to “discuss specific equipment requests” made by the Iraqis, but added, “it’s not all about weapons.”

The priority, the official said, is an “overall strategic approach” to fighting terrorism in Iraq, including gaining the support of Sunni tribal leaders — in order to ensure that the nation’s Sunni regions embrace the government, rather than secretly support al Qaeda-style extremists.