President Obama's meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki at the White House on Friday comes amid growing sectarian violence in the Mideast nation and concerns about the reemergence of al Qaeda.
Maliki is facing criticism from Capitol Hill for stoking the violent divide in Iraq, made more worrisome by the sectarian civil war in neighboring Syria.
Maliki is asking the U.S. to commit to major weapons sales, but senior administration officials previewing the meeting Wednesday declined to say whether such a deal with Iraq would be completed during the visit.
“Weapons sales alone will not advance any of our interests,” a senior administration official said, explaining that such transactions have to be part of a broader “strategic approach.”
But the official echoed concerns about growing terrorist cells where the American footprint has decreased dramatically since U.S. troops left the country in 2011 without a post-war security accord in place.
“It is a fact now that al Qaeda has a presence in western Iraq,” the official added.
Obama has said little publicly about Iraq, with his attention focused on Syria. In his push for U.S. involvement to punish Syrian leader Bashar Assad for his use of chemical weapons, Obama assured Americans that intervention would not lead to a long-term commitment like the Iraq war.
But lawmakers are urging Obama to take a tougher stand with Maliki, warning that if Iraq descends into disarray, it threatens U.S. interests not just there, but in the rest of the region.
Earlier this week, a group of bipartisan senators warned Obama that the situation in Iraq was verging on another civil war, laying the blame squarely on Maliki’s rule.
“Prime Minister Maliki’s mismanagement of Iraqi politics is contributing to the recent surge of violence,” Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., John McCain, R-Ariz., Robert Menendez, D-N.J., Bob Corker, R-Tenn., James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., wrote to the president.
“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,” they added.
The senior administration official said the president would aim to “help them as best we can,” but that before Iraq's government receives better weapons, they must first get the "mass of the population on their side."
The Iraqi delegation met with Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday morning and will hold discussions with lawmakers before talks with Obama on Friday.