Obama meets Maliki as US exits Iraq
AFP, Monday 12 Dec 2011
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki pays a visit to Washington to hold talks on the future ties after US withdrawal

President Barack Obama meets Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki Monday, marking America's exit from a war launched in a aerial "shock and awe" assault that went on to deeply wound both nations.

Obama will hold talks with Maliki at the White House, have a press conference and join his visitor at nearby Arlington National Cemetery where many of the nearly 4,500 US war dead lie buried following the 2003 US invasion.

Tens of thousands of Iraqis also died in a war, insurgency and civil dislocation that left Iraq with the stirrings of a democratic, yet troubled political system and facing territorial challenges from neighbor Iran.

The meeting will be an important full circle moment in Obama's presidency, as his initial opposition to an unpopular war as an unknown Illinois state lawmaker powered his unlikely rise to the pinnacle of US power.

Since then though, Obama has proved a steely commander-in-chief, escalating the Afghan war even as he pulled troops out of Iraq and intensified a ruthless US covert campaign against Al-Qaeda leaders and foot soldiers.

Maliki will meet Obama less than a month before the complete withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and more than eight years after the launch of the US-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein.

Maliki will also meet with Vice President Joe Biden and lawmakers to discuss security, energy, education and justice.

The US and Iraqi leaders "will hold talks on the removal of US military forces from Iraq, and our efforts to start a new chapter in the comprehensive strategic partnership between the United States and Iraq," the White House said.

The full withdrawal from Iraq was mandated under an agreement concluded by the former administration of President George W. Bush.

Long-running talks designed to provide for a future US training mission by US troops failed over the issue of providing immunity for US troops in Iraq, though both sides say they are still talking on future military exchanges.

The meeting comes as Iraq's top security adviser said that NATO will mirror the nearly-complete pullout of US forces by withdrawing its Iraq training mission at year's end after Baghdad refused to grant it legal immunity.

But an official at NATO headquarters in Brussels denied that any decision had been taken.

"When they ask us to extend the mission, we need to see that the same legal framework will extend as well," the official said on condition of anonymity.

Iraq said the end of the mission was a surprise, with NATO previously having agreed in principle to staying through to the end of 2013.

"We are sorry that NATO has advised that it will withdraw its mission from Iraq... because immunity is something that is out of the government's reach," National Security Adviser Falah al-Fayadh said in an interview aboard a flight transporting Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to Washington.

He said Baghdad was informed of the decision on Thursday.

The failure to agree on immunity from prosecution closely mirrors Iraq's refusal to grant US soldiers similar protections earlier this year, sinking the deal between the two countries that means all American soldiers left in Iraq will leave by December 31.

Around 6,000 US troops remain stationed in the country on three bases, down from peaks of nearly 170,000 soldiers and 505 bases. All the troops must leave by the end of the month.

For his third visit to the United States since coming to power in May 2006, Maliki is being accompanied by Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, Culture Minister and acting Defense Minister Saadun al-Dulaimi, Transport Minister Khayrullah Hassan Babakir, Trade Minister Hadi al-Ameri and National Security Adviser Falah al-Fayadh.

Also on the trip are National Investment Commission chief Sami al-Araji and Maliki's chief adviser and former oil minister Thamer al-Ghadban.

With American troops on their way out, some Republican lawmakers have expressed concern that neighboring Iran could step into the security vacuum.

The US military leaves behind an Iraqi security force with more than 900,000 troops, which US and Iraqi officials assess is capable of maintaining internal security but cannot defend the country's borders, airspace or maritime territory.

Some 157 uniformed US soldiers and up to 763 civilian contractors will remain to help train Iraqi forces under the authority of the sprawling US embassy in Baghdad.

Obama will mark the final withdrawal of all US troops from Iraq by addressing returning soldiers on Wednesday at a base in North Carolina.

Facing a reelection battle in November, Obama is expected to stress he has kept his 2008 campaign promise to bring American troops home from Iraq.

But although violence has declined markedly from the sectarian bloodbath that marked a peak in 2006-2007 when tens of thousands were left dead, it remains a common feature of modern Iraq. In November alone, 187 people were killed in attacks, and several major bombings took place this month.