Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will ultimately determine… (Hadi Mizban/AP )
BAGHDAD — Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will meet President Obama at the White House Monday for talks aimed at cementing U.S.-Iraqi relations in a new, postwar era.
The visit kicks off a week in which the administration will trumpet the imminent end of the war, and the fulfillment of Obama’s election pledge to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq. With only 6,000 troops left in the country as of Sunday — all waiting their turn to board planes or drive south — the Iraq war is already effectively over.
Obama will showcase the milestone in a speech to returning soldiers at Fort Bragg, N.C., on Wednesday, where he is expected to thank the troops for their sacrifices ahead of the Dec. 31 deadline for all American soldiers to be out of Iraq.
But it will be Maliki, Iraq’s leader for the next three years, who will ultimately determine whether any of the goals of the war will be achieved. The U.S. presence in Iraq is ending on a note of uncertainty, with most of the fundamental issues thrown up by the 2003 invasion still unresolved and new sources of friction, such as the unrest in neighboring Syria, surfacing to create fresh tensions.
The uncertainty in Iraq’s future was underscored by Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick, the deputy commanding general of U.S. forces in Iraq, when he told Pentagon reporters in a video briefing last week that “we really don’t know what’s going to happen” after U.S. troops leave.
Much will depend on whether Maliki can hold together the U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces, sustain the fragile political consensus forged after last year’s elections and keep at bay what is expected to be an intensified effort by Iran to exert influence over its neighbor once U.S. troops have departed.
Despite the nearly nine years that U.S. troops have spent in Iraq, it is still far from certain whether the United States will be able to continue to count on Maliki’s loyalties in the future, said Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at the London School of Economics.
“Maliki has always been a very troublesome ally,” Dodge said. “America has never managed to get him to do what they want him to do, and they never managed to run him. All they can do is hold on to him and pray, because they’ve got no one else.”
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal published online Sunday, Maliki said he expected Iranian interference in Iraq to end with the departure of American forces because “there will no longer be an argument for Iran to interfere in Iraqi affairs.”
Maliki has always sought to portray himself as a nationalist, and he told the Journal: “I’ll confront the meddling of any country in the world. For me, Iraqi sovereignty is above all else.”
Maliki’s allies say he will still need American help if he is to check Iranian demands.
“Iran is our neighbor and it has influence, but America . . . has a big embassy and it is a huge power in the region, so if Maliki is looking for balance, America is still there and its troops are not far away,” said Sami al-Askari, a legislator and close aide to Maliki.
Iraq’s army still lacks a conventional defensive capability, leaving the country vulnerable to the pressures of potentially covetous neighbors. Topping the agenda of the talks with Obama will be the level of training the United States will be able to continue to provide the Iraqi security forces once the troops have gone, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials.
The ending of the war will provide as much of a boost for Maliki as it has for Obama, enabling him to portray himself to Iraqis as the leader who rid Iraq of foreign forces, Askari said. “Maliki can say to the Iraqi people, ‘Our security forces are strong enough that we don’t need American troops anymore.’ ”
Maliki’s strength is a growing source of concern, however, to many of his rivals, calling into question the democracy that was another of the war’s original goals. In recent years, he has steadily consolidated his control over the security forces, installing loyalists in top positions, bringing key units under his direct control and retaining for himself the positions of minister of defense and interior.
“He’s in charge of everything, and it’s the main complaint of most of the [political] blocs,” said Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman. “He’s turning into another one-man show with his grip on everything that concerns security.”
But as a strongman, Maliki may prove to be in a better position to withstand pressures from Iran, Dodge said. “America’s got more invested in Maliki’s rise than Iran,” he said. “Maliki has the financial and military capital to distance himself from Tehran, but whether he has the political sentiment to do that is the question.”