US president Barack Obama and Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki will meet in Washington on Friday as the beleaguered Iraqi nation faces existential challenges amid surging sectarian bloodshed and an ever-worsening political crisis.
The meeting will also test US commitments toward Iraq nearly three years after the last American soldier withdrew from the country and whether the Obama administration is ready to take concrete steps to avert the catastrophic disintegration of the violence-battered country.
Al-Maliki is visiting Washington as the Al-Qaeda terror group wages a fierce battle against the country’s security forces and Shia-led government in an attempt to secure a safe haven for its fighters around Baghdad similar to the one that exists in neighbouring Syria.
Before his arrival in Washington, al-Maliki voiced concerns that the violence in Iraq was turning into “genocide” and urged concerted international efforts to combat terrorism. He has also accused unnamed neighbouring countries of fuelling the Sunni insurgency.
Iraq's envoy to Washington, Lukman Faily, who belongs to al-Maliki’s Dawa Party, has been lobbying for weeks “for the approval and quick delivery of military sales” to Iraq and for “increasing the depth and width” of Iraqi-US cooperation.
However, Al-Maliki's meeting with Obama comes amidst a rising spiral of sectarian violence in Iraq, which has killed more than 6,000 people this year alone, including hundreds in October.
Most of the attacks are believed to be being carried out by Al-Qaeda's affiliate in the country, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a spill-over from the civil war in Iraq's western neighbour, which now operates on both sides of the border.
The violence underlines the fragility of al-Maliki’s coalition government and how badly the security situation in the country has worsened since the withdrawal of US forces in December 2011.
Since then, al-Maliki's government has failed to build up effective armed forces, and in a sign of the serious deterioration in security Al-Qaeda has been gaining footholds and imposing territorial control in many of the country’s Sunni provinces, especially in the vast desert area along the Syrian border.
Given the commitment of the United States to the Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA) it concluded with Iraq before its withdrawal in order to help Baghdad fight terrorism, al-Maliki hopes that Washington will assist his government in curbing the violence.
Baghdad has been seeking Washington’s help for its fledgling security forces to fight the Sunni insurgents. In August, al-Maliki sent two high-level delegations to Washington to plead for weapons and intelligence cooperation.
According to various media reports, Iraq is seeking a military and security package from the US that would include Apache helicopters and the prospect of sending US intelligence officers to Iraq to help the security services target Al-Qaeda operatives in the country.
Press reports have also suggested that Iraq is also asking the United States to send drones that could be used in counter-terrorism operations, including the fight against Al-Qaeda.
Washington has already agreed to sell Iraq US$4.7 billion worth of military equipment, including F-16 fighters and an integrated air-defence system that includes radar, missiles, guidance systems, training and support.
In August, US secretary of state John Kerry said that the United States would help Baghdad deal with the spill-over from the Syrian conflict and in combating Al-Qaeda in Iraq, but there has thus far been no sign that Washington has shipped the requested military capabilities.
In contrast to the positive expectations floated by al-Maliki's aides, US officials have been tight-lipped about US weapons supplies or military cooperation with Iraq.
A White House statement said the Obama-Maliki meeting on 1 November will “highlight the importance of the US-Iraq relationship,” but it was short on details about the discussions.
Observers are expecting few breakthroughs on new weapons sales to Iraq during the visit, and some have suggested that Washington will attach certain conditions to the deal, if one is made.
On 3 October the US magazine Foreign Policy quoted US experts on Iraqi counterterrorism as saying that “there are any number of reasons why the US might be reluctant to engage” in Iraq.
As for the hot-button issue of sending unmanned planes to engage Al-Qaeda in Iraq, US officials have been leaking reports that Washington is not about to open a new front in its global drone campaign, which has already drawn world-wide condemnation.
The question arises of why al-Maliki has been so keen to travel to Washington at a time of political crisis and spiralling violence if the Obama administration is in no mood to commit itself to any direct involvement on the ground in Iraq or even to al-Maliki's shopping list of weapons.
The trip comes during the run-up to the parliamentary elections scheduled in Iraq in the spring, in which al-Maliki intends to run for a third term in office despite increasing opposition to his candidacy and the series of setbacks his government has suffered since his re-election in 2010.
For many observers, this is not a coincidence, and Iraq's Machiavellian prime minister, who persuaded the United States to back him to retain the premiership despite his failure to win the 2010 elections, seems to have timed his visit to Washington to use the event in support of his re-election.
In 2006, the Bush administration publicly declared its support for al-Maliki, defending him against Iraqi and US critics who accused him, among other things, of lacking political experience and the ability to forge consensus, being a conservative, too close to Iran, and having a sectarian agenda.
Al-Maliki’s government is now teetering, being blamed for incompetence, the ruthless monopoly of power, and a failure to stop the country’s unrelenting descent into chaos.
This month, al-Maliki drew wide criticism after he boasted in a televised interview that his son, who has no security portfolio, is fulfilling police duties under his instructions.
Last Thursday, a small group of protesters in the holy city of Karbala, which hosts the shrine of the Imam Hussein, the Shias’ most revered religious figure, shouted pro-Saddam Hussein slogans, an unprecedented expression of anger since the fall of the former Iraqi dictator in 2003.
Karbala is also the home town of the Iraqi prime minister and of several of his Shia ministers, which makes the chants a personal insult to al-Maliki.
At the heart of Al-Maliki's troubles has been the deep-rooted Sunni resentment against their potential marginalisation, this increasingly turning violent and triggering fears of the collapse of Iraq's fragile political system.
Al-Maliki bears the blame for his failure to comply with a partnership agreement, under which his coalition government was formed, to allow the Sunnis to govern Iraq jointly with the Shias and the Kurds.
Even many Shias detest his autocracy, and lately two of his main Shia rivals, Muqtada al-Sadr and Ammar al-Hakim, have reportedly started acting to boost their own groups’ status ahead of the parliamentary elections next year.
On Monday, al-Sadr, leader of the Sadrists Group which has 40 seats in the 325-seat parliament, criticised al-Maliki's “greedy” bid for a third term in office.
Now the Kurds are also objecting to a new election law that al-Maliki's bloc has proposed, considering it to be unfair as it does not give the Kurds their deserved share of seats in the federal parliament.
President of the Kurdistan Regional Government Masoud Barzani has warned that the Kurdish Region will boycott next year's elections if a new and more favourable elections law is not enacted.
A Kurdish boycott of the national elections would be disastrous and would plunge the country into further turmoil.
It is highly unlikely that al-Maliki will use his meeting with Obama to discuss the apparently irresolvable dilemmas confronting Iraq and its steady decent into chaos precisely because he himself is part of the problem.
Obama should also be using his encounter with al-Maliki to reinforce the US commitments toward Iraq consistent with the SFA, which mandates helping Iraq to enhance its security and stability and strengthen its democratic institutions.
Obama should bring up the fundamental issues that have underpinned the protracted government crisis with al-Maliki, including the failure of the security forces and his own responsibility for the sectarian polarisation and exclusion of the Sunnis in the country that has been behind the recent spiral of violence.
Obama should make it clear to al-Maliki that he views making credible progress on national reconciliation and the inclusion of all Iraqis in an inclusive, democratically elected government to be an essential part of any cooperation with his government, including military supplies and assistance.
Moreover, Obama needs to take concrete measures against al-Maliki's government for its rampant corruption, mismanagement of Iraq's huge oil resources, and violations of human rights as catalysts to instability in Iraq.
The United States bears a special responsibility for Iraq's dilemmas, first through its invasion of the country in 2003 and second in helping al-Maliki assume power in the first place.
The least it can now do is to send al-Maliki a clear message that there will be no cooperation with him as long as he maintains his greed for power and continues his policy of monopoly and exclusion.
This story was first published in Ahram Weekly.