Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said the world needs to help Iraq deal with its growing insurgency that U.S. officials estimate has killed 6,000 people so far this year. (Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Terrorists "found a second chance" to thrive in Iraq, the nation's prime minister said Thursday in asking for new U.S. aid to beat back a bloody insurgency that has been fueled by the neighboring Syrian civil war and the departure of American troops from Iraq two years ago.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told a packed auditorium at the U.S. Institute of Peace that he needs additional weapons, help with intelligence and other assistance, and claimed the world has a responsibility to help because terrorism is an international concern.
"They carry their bad ideas everywhere," al-Maliki said of terrorists. "They carry bad ideas instead of flowers."
The new request comes nearly two years after al-Maliki's government refused to let U.S. forces remain in Iraq, after nearly nine years of war, with legal immunity that the Obama administration insisted was necessary to protect troops. The administration had campaigned on ending the war in Iraq and took the opportunity offered by the legal dispute to pull all troops out.
Al-Maliki will meet Friday with President Barack Obama in what Baghdad hopes will be a fresh start in a complicated relationship that has been marked both by victories and frustrations for each side.
Within months of the U.S. troops' departure, violence began creeping up in the capital and across the country as Sunni Muslim insurgents, angered by a widespread belief that Sunnis had been sidelined by the Shiite-led government, lashed out. The State Department says at least 6,000 Iraqis have been killed in attacks so far this year, and suicide bombers launched 38 strikes in the last month alone.
"So the terrorists found a second chance," al-Maliki said — a turnabout from an insurgency that was mostly silenced by the time the U.S. troops left.
Al-Maliki largely blamed the Syrian civil war for the rise in Iraq's violence. In Syria, rebels — including some linked to al-Qaida — are fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad.
Al-Maliki said he will ask Obama for new assistance to bolster Iraq's military and fight al-Qaida. The Iraqi ambassador to the U.S. said that could include speeding up the delivery of U.S. aircraft, missiles, interceptors and other weapons, and improving national intelligence systems among other things.
Iraqi Ambassador Lukman Faily did not rule out the possibility of asking the U.S. to send military special forces or additional CIA advisers to Iraq to help train and assist counterterror troops, but noted that if the U.S. doesn't provide the help, Iraq will go where they can, including China or Russia, which would be more than happy to increase their influence in Baghdad at U.S. expense.
The two leaders also will discuss how Iraq can improve its fractious government, which so often is divided among sectarian or ethnic lines, to give it more confidence with a bitter and traumatized public.
The ambassador said no new security agreement would be needed to give immunity to additional U.S. advisers or trainers in Iraq. And he said Iraq would pay for the additional weapons or other assistance.
A senior Obama administration official said Wednesday that U.S. officials were not planning to send U.S. trainers to Iraq and that Baghdad had not asked for them. The administration official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters by name.
U.S. officials were prepared to help Iraq with an approach that did not focus just on military or security gaps, the administration official said. The aid under consideration might include more weapons for Iraqi troops who do not have necessary equipment to battle al-Qaida insurgents, he said.
Administration officials consider the insurgency, which has rebranded itself as the Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant, a major and increasing threat both to Iraq and the U.S., the official said.
U.S. and Iraqi officials see a possible solution in trying to persuade insurgents to join forces with Iraqi troops and move away from al-Qaida, following a pattern set by so-called Awakening Councils in western Iraq that marked a turning point in the war. Faily said much of the additional aid — including weapons and training — would go toward this effort.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who opposed the U.S. troop withdrawal in 2011, said Iraq likely would not get the aid until al-Maliki, a Shiite, makes strides in making the government more inclusive to Sunnis. "The situation is deteriorating and it's unraveling, and he's got to turn it around," McCain said Wednesday after a tense meeting on Capitol Hill with al-Maliki.
Al-Maliki's plea for aid is somewhat ironic, given that he refused to budge in 2011 on letting U.S. troops stay in Iraq with legal immunity Washington said they must have to defend themselves in the volatile country. But it was a fiercely unpopular political position in Iraq, which was unable to prosecute Blackwater Worldwide security contractors who opened fire in a Baghdad square in 2007, killing at least 13 passersby.
James F. Jeffrey, who was the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad when the U.S. troops left, called it a "turnabout" by al-Maliki. He said Iraq desperately needs teams of U.S. advisers, trainers, intelligence and counterterror experts to beat back al-Qaida.
"They could mean all the difference between losing an Iraq that 4,500 Americans gave their lives for," said Jeffrey, who retired from the State Department after leaving Baghdad last year.
Nearly 4,500 U.S. troops were killed in Iraq between the 2003 invasion and the 2011 withdrawal. More than 100,000 Iraqi were killed in that time.