Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki visited the United States last week, along with a delegation including Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari and Defense Minister Saadoun al-Dulaimi. His arrival came at the end of Iraq’s deadliest month since April 2008, with 855 civilians, 65 policemen, and 44 soldiers killed. In an op-ed for the New York Times, Maliki planned the visit with the express intent of “propos[ing] a deeper security relationship between the United States and Iraq to combat terrorism and address broader regional security concerns.”
The major public component of Maliki’s visit was a keynote address he delivered at the U.S. Institute of Peace on October 31. Maliki argued for increased counterterrorism assistance to combat the al-Qaeda threat in Iraq, calling on U.S. policymakers to embrace “third world war against the people who are calling for bloodshed and ignorance and who do not want logic to govern our daily life.“ Despite a recent rise in sectarian violence, Maliki claimed that there is “no problem between Sunni and Shi’a” in Iraq, and also dismissed concerns about his growing personal power by alleging that his actions were legitimate “as long as [he is] acting according to the constitution.” Privately, Maliki had a series of meetings, visiting Vice President Biden on Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Hagel on Thursday, and President Obama on Friday.
While Maliki is requesting a significant increase in assistance in response to the Iraqi Security Force’s inability to stem an increase in terrorist activity, the U.S. is already providing Iraq with various forms of assistance. In early August, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) notified Congress of two planned sales: an integrated air defense system and advanced communications equipment. During Maliki’s visit, a senior Obama administration official confirmed that the sale of 18 F-16 fighters to Iraq was on track to proceed, with delivery expected in approximately one year. There was additional speculation that future security assistance to Iraq could include ground artillery or unmanned surveillance drones. In his meeting with Biden on Wednesday, Maliki reportedly advocated for the administration’s help in overcoming Congressional opposition to Iraq’s acquisition of AH-64 Apache Helicopters.
Maliki’s trip brought to light a number of serious concerns with his management of Iraq’s worsening security situation. Shortly before his visit, U.S. Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Carl Levin (D-MI), James Inhofe (R-OK), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Bob Corker (R-TN), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) sent a letter to the Obama administration that alleged Maliki’s “failure of governance” was the result of a “sectarian and authoritarian agenda,” and that this agenda would need to be revised for the Congress to endorse a more productive relationship with Iraq. The letter also emphasized that “Iraq’s challenges will never be solved through security operations alone.” Despite the cautions of their letter, however, the senators have thus far made no indication they would fight against the further appropriation of security assistance for the Iraqi government.
Another point of concern is Iraq’s growing ties with Iran. The senatorial letter cited the failure of Iraqi defense forces to prevent the Iranians from transporting supplies to the Assad regime in Syria. Cooperation with Iran has steadily increased since Saddam Hussein’s ouster. Most recently, a naval memorandum of understanding was signed between the two countries. This particular development is of some concern to analysts who believe that Iranian naval forces, including both the regular and IRGC navies, are “the most serious threat to other Gulf states and the U.S.” from among Iran’s conventional forces.
Finally, independent observers have raised concerns of government-led human rights abuses. Erin Evers argues that the U.S. government has “ignored widely available evidence that Iraqi security forces directly answerable to the prime minister were detaining and torturing peaceful government critics, and had detained hundreds of others in a secret Baghdad jail.” U.S. forces “cooperating with Iraqi security forces that have allegedly committed abuses” would be a violation of the 1997 Leahy Law, which prohibits U.S. security assistance to individuals or units that have committed human rights violations. Human rights organizations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have echoed these concerns, citing an increase in government executions and restrictions on freedom of the press.