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Two years after the last U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq, Baghdad and Washington are closely aligned in the fight against Al-Qaeda but substantially at odds over Syria and Iran. That's the strategic backdrop to Friday's White House visit by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose domestic critics see his emphasis on Al-Qaeda as designed to deflect criticism of his increasingly authoritarian exercise of power.
Maliki’s visit comes after months of sustained bloodshed in Iraq, where near daily bombing attacks, mostly directed at civilians, have put violence close to the levels at the height of Iraq’s civil war. Approximately 7,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed in 2013 alone.
The uptick in violence two years after the U.S. troop withdrawal is largely related to a resurgent Al-Qaeda on Iraq’s western border, analysts say. And that, says Reidar Visser, a noted Iraq analyst affiliated with the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, is “mostly to do with the regional situation in Syria.”
“It reflects Al-Qaeda activities in the border area,” Visser said. “We wouldn’t have seen this level of violence without Syria.”
Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups that have played a prominent role in the Syrian rebellion operate on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border, fighting the regimes of both Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and Maliki.
Obama administration officials, speaking to reporters anonymously on Wednesday, said that the U.S and Iraq have a common interest in preventing Al-Qaeda gains. Maliki will cite the Al-Qaeda challenge to seek greater assistance from Washington. “The (Iraqi) military wants hardware from the U.S.,” said Visser.
Administration officials are open to providing additional support to Maliki, although the scope of any new assistance remains unclear. "The U.S. is in some ways prepared to act through the Iraqi military against Al-Qaeda in Iraq,” said Michael Knights, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Despite mutual concerns over Al-Qaeda, however, the U.S. and Iraq clearly have different priorities and agendas. Many Iraqi Sunnis, whose political parties have been alienated by Maliki's increasingly authoritarian governing style, believe the prime minister is playing the Al-Qaeda card with Washington to divert attention from consolidation of his Shia power base to the exclusion of Sunnis.
“The question of Sunni Arab participation in Iraq’s political order that has plagued the transition (from Saddam Hussein) since its inception is as acute and explosive as ever,” said an International Crisis Group report from August on Iraq’s combustible political situation.
Maliki came to power in an electoral system shepherded by the U.S., but American policymakers have subsequently reacted with dismay at his alleged failure to create an inclusive political system in Iraq.
One thing that the U.S. desires of the Maliki government today is, “in short, a better treatment of the Sunni population” said Douglas Ollivant, a senior national security fellow with the New America Foundation.
That aim of political inclusion was made forcefully by a bipartisan group of U.S. senators, including Carl Levin, D-Mich., and John McCain, R-Ariz., on Tuesday. They argued that Maliki is at fault for much of the political paralysis in Iraq that has led to violence. And they urged the Obama administration to question the delivery of military support to Iraq.
U.S. officials worry about the Iraqi government’s warm relations with Iran. Maliki is Shia, as is most of Iran. And Maliki’s submissiveness to Iran over its material support for Assad is a major cause for concern.
“One thing the U.S. really wants is for the Iraqis to stem the flow of Iranian-provided arms and fighters” to Assad, said Knights.
But U.S.-Iraqi relations play second fiddle for Washington policymakers in a series of other pressing issues in the Middle East, including Egypt, Syria and Iran. The rare media focus on the U.S.-Iraq relationship this week notwithstanding, the contours of the relationship, even on avowed shared public interests, are likely to remain discreet.
“At the moment, the U.S. seems to be content to push Maliki behind the scenes and not to push too hard,” said Knights. “To try to rebuild influence in Iraq” of the kind the U.S. had with troops on the ground, he said, “would be pushing on a closed door.”
Beyond asking for security assistance during his Washington visit, Maliki also has an interest in securing his domestic position by presenting Iraq as an important actor in the Middle East.
One way his government has tried to do that is by burnishing Iraq’s credentials as a regional power broker. Aides close to Maliki suggested to Reuters this week that Iraq’s government sees itself as a go-between with the region’s Sunni Arab bloc, led by Saudi Arabia, and the regional Shia bloc, headed by Iran.
And as the U.S. continues negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program, Iraq has suggested that it could play some kind of mediating role.
But it’s unlikely the U.S. sees things the same way. Iraq’s regional diplomatic role “certainly is not going to be the centerpiece of the visit,” one administration official told Reuters.
Either way, experts agree that Iraq’s credibility and standing in the region is particularly important for Maliki, given upcoming elections in April, when he will attempt to secure a third term.
To do so, Iraq will continue to project its power in the region through engagement with nations it remains friendly with, even if those countries are rivals themselves. To aide Maliki's political prospects, for example, it is important for him “to be seen as having the support of the Iranians and the Americans,” said Knights.