Maliki to U.S.: We’ll let you know if we need a hand

If Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is trying to project an air of cool professionalism on his visit to Washington, he can’t have enjoyed this morning’s press conference at the U.S. Institute for Peace. The prime minister went through two different interpreters before settling on one the audience could understand and at one point the ...

583138_090723_maliki2.jpg
583138_090723_maliki2.jpg
US President Barack Obama (L) and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki leave a joint press conference in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, DC, July 22, 2009. The White House meeting is the first between Maliki and Obama since US troops withdrew from Iraqi cities at the end of June, a milestone in Iraq's rehabilitation after the 2003 US-led invasion. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

If Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is trying to project an air of cool professionalism on his visit to Washington, he can't have enjoyed this morning's press conference at the U.S. Institute for Peace. The prime minister went through two different interpreters before settling on one the audience could understand and at one point the lights went off in the room (I think someone leaned on the switch) -- not exactly comforting to the secret service agents and Iraq staffers present. Once the technical issues were resolved, Maliki addressed a number of current challenges for Iraq, though he generally avoided getting into specifics.

The most newsworthy bit was his response to a question about the future role of U.S. forces, now that they have withdrawn from U.S. cities. Maliki was vague, but he did seem to leave open the possibility of allowing a U.S. military presence in Iraq beyond 2011:

If Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is trying to project an air of cool professionalism on his visit to Washington, he can’t have enjoyed this morning’s press conference at the U.S. Institute for Peace. The prime minister went through two different interpreters before settling on one the audience could understand and at one point the lights went off in the room (I think someone leaned on the switch) — not exactly comforting to the secret service agents and Iraq staffers present. Once the technical issues were resolved, Maliki addressed a number of current challenges for Iraq, though he generally avoided getting into specifics.

The most newsworthy bit was his response to a question about the future role of U.S. forces, now that they have withdrawn from U.S. cities. Maliki was vague, but he did seem to leave open the possibility of allowing a U.S. military presence in Iraq beyond 2011:

If the Iraqi forces required further training and support we will examine this at this time based on the needs of Iraq. I am sure that the prospects and will for such cooperation is found among both parties…the nature of that relationship will then be discussed and reexamined. 

Maliki addressed Kurdish concerns over the increasing power of Baghdad (Qubad Talabani referred to these concerns earlier this month):

If you want to talk about Iraqi citizenship, this has to be away from any sectarian or any other affiliation. The relationship between the Kurds and the Iraqi people in general has seen some “hoops,” if you will, and it needs to be resolved. Perhaps there were many exaggerations of concerns more than what the reality was. The solutions must be found in a constitutional way [agreeable to] the whole Iraqi people.

Without mentioning any specific countries, he suggested that “Democracy in Iraq faces serious opposition in the region”:

In reality, democracy with its true definition is not a system that the region was accustomed to. Democracy is a ssystem that is composed of various components. All the countries of the regions have various components at the level of various sects and components. They have not reached the level we have reached in Iraq.

He also responded to the criticism that his government is becoming too powerful and is beginning to crack down on political opponents. He said that all those arrested — including Sunni Awakening Council leaders recently arrested in Diyala — are guilty of fomenting unrest and their prosecution has nothing to do with sectarian divisions:

People who are affiliated with political gorups don’t want to admit they are committing crimes against the people. What is a cause of concern is those who have caused women to be widowed and children to be orphaned. We have sympathy with the family of victims. Not those who are committing crimes.

This operation is happening away from any politicization or sectarian calculation. We have dealt with everything without such coordination.

Maliki also answered a question about the exhuberant celebrations that followed the U.S. withdrawal from Iraqi cities:

The withdrawal from the cities is victory and not a failure for either the Iraqis or the Americans. In that withdrawal, we the Iraqi forces have defeated al Qaeda and all the other gangs… Later on the Iraqi army also will withdraw to its own camps and you will see only the police on the streets of Iraq.

Throughout the presentation, Maliki returned again and again to the theme of Iraqi unity — downplaying sectarian of political divisions in his own government and the country at large as insignificant. This confidence reflects a leader who — as USIP’s Sam Parker argues in today’s ForeignPolicy.com cover story — has gone from a marginal figure, chosen as prime minister because of his weakness and lack of popular support, to the overwhelmingly dominant actor in Iraqi politics.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy Twitter: @joshuakeating

Tag: Iraq

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