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Iraqi PM Maliki takes plea for help to President Obama

November 1, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki met with President Obama Friday to extend his plea for help in the renewed fight against al-Qaida and to address concerns over the state of democracy in Iraq. Margaret Warner joins Judy Woodruff for analysis on whether or not Maliki's week in Washington will yield any additional U.S. aid.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: A recent wave of car bombings, shootings and other attacks by al-Qaida militants have plunged Iraq once again into a country gripped by violence.

As our chief foreign affairs correspondent, Margaret Warner, reports, another deadly milestone was met today, while Iraq’s leader came to the White House looking for help.

PRESIDENT PRESIDENT OBAMA: I want to welcome back…

MARGARET WARNER: Today’s two-hour meeting between Maliki and the president capped off a busy week in Washington for Iraq’s prime minister in his quest for more U.S. help to fight a resurgent and deadly al-Qaida in his country. Mr. Obama said that threat was front and center in their talks.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: So, we had a lot of discussion about how we can work together to push back against that terrorist organization that operates not only in Iraq, but also poses a threat to the entire region and to the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: But he also urged Maliki and his Shiite-dominated government to share power more broadly and to address the lingering grievances of Sunnis and Kurds.

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PRESIDENT OBAMA: We were encouraged by the work that Prime Minister Maliki’s done in the past to ensure that all people inside of Iraq, Sunni, Shia, Kurd, feel that they have a voice in their government. And one of the most important expressions of that will be elections next year.

MARGARET WARNER: U.S. troops left Iraq for good at the end of 2011, though Washington continued military sales and development aid.

Now Maliki wants a lot more military hardware, including Apache helicopters and fighter jets, and stepped-up counterterrorism and intelligence assistance.

But, after the meeting, Maliki tried to respond to the president’s urging that he be more politically inclusive at home.

PRIME MINISTER NOURI AL-MALIKI, Iraq (through interpreter): What we want is for Iraq and the region to be able to work together. And we are working in Iraq and mobilizing our people to fight al-Qaida. The democratic experience in Iraq is nascent and fragile, but it was born very strong. Democracy needs to be strong, because it alone will allow us to fight terrorism.

MARGARET WARNER: The need is urgent. Since the spring, Iraq has seen the worst bloodletting in more than five years, mostly directed against Shia civilians.

And a United Nations report today issued eye-popping figures for October, nearly 1,000 more Iraqis killed, many at mass gatherings like weddings, funerals and schools. The toll in September was equally grim, and there have been more than 7,000 killed so far this year.

Maliki blames the attacks on a revived al-Qaida branch in Iraq now operating from bases in Western Iraq and ungoverned Eastern Syria. But it will be up to Congress to decide if Maliki gets from Washington all the extra help he seeks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Margaret, who has been covering this all week, joins us now.

Thank you, Margaret.

So, Maliki, as you say, has been here all this week. How — making a full-court press. How has it gone?

MARGARET WARNER: It’s been very bumpy, Judy, particularly on Capitol Hill and with some people who consider themselves Iraq experts.

What we don’t know, because the meetings at the White House and then the follow-ons with Vice President Biden and Prime Minister Maliki just ended, I don’t know, eight minutes ago, and so what we don’t — what I can’t tell you now is whether the president, vice president, Secretary Kerry came away with a sense that Maliki really is — really gets it, really gets the fact that he cannot solve this violence problem, as awful as it is, with security alone, that he has to also make internal changes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, tell us about the approach of the administration vs. the Congress. I mean, what are you hearing? What are — what are they saying?

MARGARET WARNER: It’s very different.

First of all, Congress really matters here, it’s important to know, because the sales he wants, say, Apache military helicopters, for instance, have to get yea or nay from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It’s just a quirk in the law, not the whole Senate, but the Foreign Relations Committee.

So, the senators, the two leading senators there, Chairman Robert Menendez, a Democrat, and Bob Corker of Tennessee, the Republican, and many others, Senator McCain, who you saw interviewed this week, all believe that Maliki’s exacerbating his problems by alienating the Sunnis. I mean, they do things like go into Sunni neighborhoods and round up 500 young men in the name of fighting terrorism.

And one American official told them, you know, you’re making the same mistakes we made in Iraq early on. We just create more terrorists. They’re also concerned about allowing Iranian overflights of material and weapons to Assad’s forces in Syria. And, finally, they are very concerned that any counterterrorism or weapons they give, Maliki could use to repress his own people, because they have cracked down on a lot of protesters.

So, the White House, let me just say briefly, sees all that, but they are most concerned about this absolutely volatile situation along that border between Iraq and Syria, and that, one, they could “lose Iraq” — quote, unquote — as one official said to me today. And, two, that makes it really hard to contain the radical jihadis within Syria.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Maliki did spend time on the Hill?

MARGARET WARNER: Mm-hmm. 

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how much progress did he make there? What happened?

MARGARET WARNER: It went very badly.

The key meetings yesterday were with Senator McCain and — excuse me — Wednesday — and then with Corker and Menendez. And I’m told that that latter meeting was particularly contentious. They laid out all their concerns. He sort of sat impassively and, according to the aides present, he simply repeated platitudes about how he’s governing by the constitution.

And, finally, Menendez got so — I don’t know if it’s angry, but certainly peeved, that he looked at him and he said: Look, I feel you’re just glossing over our concerns. And you need to know you’re not getting any of this without our OK.

And Senator Corker came out afterwards and said: We felt he was completely dismissive of our concerns.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And it’s known that one of the things they feel strongly about is he needs to share power.

You have been in Iraq. You have talked to people who are close to Maliki. How do they explain fact that he doesn’t like that idea?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, you know, I think former Ambassador Ryan Crocker said it well in the piece I ran last night, which is, you have to understand that he comes from a party, the Dawa Party. Shiites, they were brutally repressed under Saddam Hussein.

So now that he’s on top and the Shiites are on top, they’re afraid, oh, my God, if the Sunnis — if we share power with the Sunnis, the bad old days will return. And we are really — and so they just don’t know how. They don’t trust in the governing system to fairly allocate power.

So, instead, they clamp down. You’re seeing the same thing in Egypt, where you saw the Muslim Brotherhood, once they got on top after years of repression, cut everyone out. And so really in the whole post-Arab spring Middle East, we are seeing the inability of — elections don’t solve the problem. Habits of mind have to be developed that are very different from what they had lived with.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Margaret, given all that, where does it go from here?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, the first thing is, is, the administration — did Maliki learn something between Wednesday’s meetings and today’s meetings with the White House?

And I, frankly, can’t tell you the answer to that. But I’m told that, for instance, the Apache helicopter request is on the Hill. It’s not — it’s not being acted on. I think that Maliki’s going to have go back and make some bold steps to show greater inclusiveness.

He’s already done some, because his party actually took a drubbing in recent local elections, because even the Shiites are furious that nobody’s protecting them from all these terrorist attacks. So, the question is whether the combination of political pressure really internally, plus from the administration, will make him — quote — “see the light,” in Americans’ terms.

The danger is, of course, that every month that goes by — you saw those horrific figures.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

MARGARET WARNER: The situation gets far more dangerous, far more volatile, far more likely to draw in civilian Sunnis and Shiites into a really bloody civil war of the kind you had in ’05 to ’07.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It really is an awful situation.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, it is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, once again, great reporting, Margaret. Thanks.

MARGARET WARNER: Thanks.