Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pleaded on Thursday for U.S. and international support to combat a revival of al Qaeda that observers fear could plunge the country back into civil war.
Maliki spoke at the U.S. Institute of Peace about the gains Iraq has made since the full withdrawal of U.S. combat troops in 2011, noting investment by U.S. companies and the opening of foreign embassies within the country. However, he acknowledged that al Qaeda’s resurgences has strained Iraqi security forces and could destabilize the country and region if left unaddressed.
“It is our right to seek international support,” Maliki said. “If the situation in Iraq is not well-treated, it will be disastrous for the whole world.”
Al Qaeda’s Iraq branch has exploited the instability in civil war-torn Syria to expand its operations and morph into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a new group based in neighboring Syria that has poured thousands of fighters across Iraq’s porous western border. A wave of car bombings and multiple location attacks by ISIS and other al Qaeda-linked groups has resulted in more than 7,000 civilian deaths so far this year, according to United Nations estimates—the worst levels of violence since a U.S.-led surge forced out insurgents in 2008.
Although Maliki said he initially supported the so-called “Arab Spring” revolutions that toppled dictatorships in several countries, he argued that al Qaeda has filled the power “vacuum” left in countries like Libya and Syria.
Maliki, who critics say has increasingly exercised authoritarian rule, also sought to allay concerns that Iraq would squander gains made after a decade of fighting by U.S. troops.
“We shed blood together, and we paid the price,” he said. “We want to continue our bilateral relations.”
Maliki is in Washington, D.C., this week to meet with U.S. leaders and press for additional arms sales, such as Apache attack helicopters, and intelligence-gathering assistance to fight al Qaeda. He will meet with President Barack Obama Friday.
While there are reports that the Obama administration privately supports the Apache sale, any such deal is likely to draw some congressional opposition. Members of both parties have raised concerns about what they say is the consolidation of power by Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government. Maliki has also looked the other way as the Iranians fly over Iraq to deliver weapons and fighters to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an Iranian ally.
A bipartisan group of senators, including Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) and Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.), chairmen of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sent a letter to Obama Tuesday expressing displeasure with Maliki’s “sectarian and authoritarian agenda.”
“Prime Minister Maliki and his allies are disenfranchising Sunni Iraqis, marginalizing Kurdish Iraqis, and alienating the many Shia Iraqis who have a democratic, inclusive, and pluralistic vision for their country,” they wrote.
“This failure of governance is driving many Sunni Iraqis into the arms of al Qaeda in Iraq and fueling the rise of violence, which in turn is radicalizing Shia Iraqi communities and leading many Shia militant groups to remobilize. These were the same conditions that drove Iraq toward civil war during the last decade, and we fear that fate could befall Iraq once again.”
The senators said the United States should increase its support of Iraq’s counterterror efforts but with conditions.
“We must see more evidence from Prime Minister Maliki that U.S. security assistance and arms sales are part of a comprehensive Iraqi strategy that addresses the political sources of the current violence and seeks to bring lasting peace to the country,” they wrote.
Maliki, who might seek a third term in next April’s elections, pushed back against the notion that his governance and the return of Sunni jihadists has divided the Shiite-majority nation.
“The relations as a whole between the Iraqi people is good,” he said. “There is not a problem between Sunnis and Shiites.”
“Who is killing them in their own region? It’s al Qaeda. They are killing all Iraqis,” not just Shiites, he added.
He also said Iraq is pursuing a political strategy that U.S. congressional critics say is lacking.
“We are building a strategy, a new one based on the mobilization of the security forces and the support of the people—the clans, tribes, and sons of Iraq,” he said.
However, U.S. military officials say recent actions by the Iraqis are undermining that strategy. Maliki has considered incorporating Iranian-backed Shiite militias into Iraq’s security force, a move that could further inflame sectarian tensions.
Iraqi military units have also opted to ravage whole Sunni communities rather than launch targeted raids on al Qaeda, tactics that ignore previous training by U.S. troops and threaten more radicalization, U.S. officials say.
Officials have expressed additional concerns about reports that Iraqi security forces executed 52 unarmed Iranian dissidents last month at Camp Ashraf, north of Baghdad.