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Lawmakers doubt if more U.S. military aid is solution to Iraq’s terror threats

October 31, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
During his visit to Washington, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki asked for more U.S. military aid to fight a resurgent al-Qaida threat in his nation. But U.S. lawmakers who oppose aid are concerned the unraveling of Iraqi security comes from Maliki's own failure to "govern in an inclusive fashion." Margaret Warner reports.
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GWEN IFILL: Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told a Washington audience today his country needs help to fight a rekindled terrorist threat.

Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner was there and looks at the prime minister’s efforts to stem the bloodshed.

MARGARET WARNER: It’s become an all-too-familiar scene of renewed carnage in Iraq: a bus station hit by a car bomb, one of 10 weekend attacks that killed dozens, on top of nearly 1,000 dead in September and more than 7,000 this year, according to the United Nations.

RYAN CROCKER, former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq: It is a pretty grim time in Iraq, with over 1,000 deaths a month, most of them caused by al-Qaida bombings.

MARGARET WARNER: Ryan Crocker served as ambassador to Iraq at the height of the communal bloodletting between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in 2007 and 2008. He’s now dean of the Bush School at Texas A&M.

As bad as the current attacks by Iraq’s resurgent al-Qaida network are, Crocker warns they would be far more deadly if Sunni and Shiite civilians started turning on each other again.

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RYAN CROCKER: So far, those tensions have not erupted into the kind of fighting that I saw when I was there in 2007 and 2008. And I hope very much that the Iraqis can keep the lid on the second and far more dangerous possibility.

MARGARET WARNER: Against this bloody backdrop, Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, arrived in Washington this week. He met with Vice President Biden yesterday and other top officials. He’s also made the rounds on Capitol Hill, arguing for more U.S. military hardware and counterterrorism and intelligence aid to fight a resurgent al-Qaida.

Maliki blames Iraq’s surge in bloodshed, which exploded last spring, on the civil war in neighboring Syria, as he did today in a speech at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

PRIME MINISTER NOURI AL-MALIKI, Iraq (through interpreter): Terrorists came back to Iraq when the conflict started in Syria. Groups like al-Qaida and the Nusra Front found there’s another chance to benefit from the political conflict and create terror in Iraq. So, the terrorists found a second chance. All of the Iraqi are targeted.

The Sunni, the Shia, the Kurds are all killed alike. Al-Qaida want to reach their goal by shedding the blood of the Iraqis and spreading terror.

MARGARET WARNER: Syria and Iraq share a 400-mile largely unguarded border, through which arms and anti-government Sunni fighters now flow freely. It’s a dangerous combination, says Marc Lynch, Middle East studies director at George Washington University.

MARC LYNCH, George Washington University: People and guns move across the border quite easily. And as you get more success for the jihadists in Syria, that then ricochets into Iraq.

And so I think what you’re seeing is an actual concerted effort on the part of these movements to carve out territory that spans the border and creates a safe haven from — from Iraq into Syria.

MARGARET WARNER: But many critics here and in Iraq say elected Prime Minister Maliki and his Shiite-dominated government share the blame for the rising dangers to their country by monopolizing government power in a way that has rekindled Sunni resentment and anger.

Arizona Senator John McCain is among them.

JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.: The major reason for the unraveling in Iraq was Maliki’s failure to govern in an inclusive fashion, measures that he has taken which have alienated the Sunni population, therefore, a breeding ground, therefore, then assistance to Syria. I think the genesis was the failure of Maliki’s government, and it was taken advantage of by the situation in Syria.

MARGARET WARNER: Obama administration officials don’t disagree, but want to help Maliki anyway. The reason, explains Ryan Crocker, is that there’s still much at stake in what happens in Iraq for the security of the U.S. and the wider region.

RYAN CROCKER: We are seeing the most volatile and bloody time in the Middle East in its modern history. And it is denominated in sectarian terms. This is, more than anything, a sectarian fight. Iraq has been through that. Al-Qaida is doing its best to reignite it.

The situation in Syria can be very contagious. So key countries like Iraq have to hold, and we have to help them hold, or the entire region may just go up in flames.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet, after the thousands of American troop deaths and billions of dollars spent in Iraq before the U.S. pullout in late 2011, there is some pushback on Capitol Hill to Maliki’s requests.

In a letter to the president Tuesday, McCain and five other senators of both parties urged Mr. Obama to “press Maliki to formulate a comprehensive political and security strategy that can stabilize the country.”

High on their list of complaints: Iran’s influence in Iraq, and Iran’s use of Iraqi airspace to transit military assistance into Syria to support President Bashar Assad and his forces.

Iraq’s ambassador to the U.S., Lukman Faily, says Baghdad has told Iran it won’t tolerate such overflights of weapons. But until promised U.S. fighter jets are delivered next fall, he insists, there is little his country can do.

LUKMAN FAILY, Iraqi Ambassador to the United States: We think it’s a bit unfair of others to ask us to stop a plane or inspect a plane, while we haven’t got the capabilities to force down — a plane down — to force it down. We don’t have the air — sort of F-16 or any other type of fighters to try to force a plane.

JOHN MCCAIN: I just think it’s an excuse. There are plenty of nations that don’t have the ability to police their airspace, and yet they don’t allow overflights, particularly of this nature. Look, these are planeload after planeload of lethal weapons that are killing the Syrian people by this brutal dictator.

MARGARET WARNER: The senators’ letter also emphatically urged the president to press Maliki to bring Sunni political leaders into the fold. Sunnis have been angered by the crackdown on recent anti-government protesters and the detention of some of their prominent figures, especially last year’s trial in absentia of Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi.

He was sentenced to die for allegedly running death squads, a charge he denied from Turkey, where he fled. Ambassador Faily denies that Maliki has tried to monopolize power for the Shiites, saying that Iraq is a young democracy that’s still working on how to unify its different sects.

LUKMAN FAILY: The power-sharing between the ethnicities and the communities of Iraq are evolving as a result of election and as a result of a democratic system. Some may be unhappy to the new Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: Is Prime Minister Maliki prepared to offer anything concrete that would make Sunnis feel more included in the political system?

LUKMAN FAILY: The election next spring will surely bring coalitions who may not take place at this moment. So the political realities will change according to the aspirations of the people.

MARGARET WARNER: But does the prime minister have the ability to reach across Iraq’s sectarian divides to meet those aspirations?

Ambassador Crocker believes Maliki wants to create a pluralistic Iraq, but the weight of history makes that hard for him.

RYAN CROCKER: We also have to understand what Iraq has been through. Prime Minister Maliki comes out of a clandestine Shia political organization that was oppressed, suppressed, and often murdered by Saddam Hussein. That doesn’t create the politician or a climate that lends itself easily to compromise.

MARGARET WARNER: Marc Lynch believes this time might be different.

MARC LYNCH: Given Maliki’s history, there’s no reason to believe that he will make those choices here, but I think it’s more likely now than it’s ever been before. This is the first time since he’s been in power that he has genuinely felt that he faces an existential threat, which the United States can help him with.

MARGARET WARNER: President Obama is sure to urge the prime minister to step up to those choices when they meet at the White House tomorrow.