Al Qaeda, not al-Maliki, driving sectarian violence, says White House

Al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria, and not Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shia-led government, is the driving force behind the bloody wave of violence that has engulfed Iraq since the U.S. withdrawal two years ago. 

"The violence is coming from al Qaeda and its affiliates. I don't think there's any question about that," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Friday. 

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"This is not the product of intra-party or intra-faction conflict. This is ...  al Qaeda once again trying to destabilize Iraq and take advantage of the instability there," Carney told reporters at the White House. 

Long standing Shia-Sunni tensions in the country, along with various tribal and ethnic conflicts that have defined Iraq's political makeup, have broken out into a series of bombings and attacks not seen since the darkest days of the Iraq war. 

Fanning those sectarian flames has been the rapid resurgence of al Qaeda's Iraqi faction and its expansion into neighboring Syria, where Islamic militants have taken advantage of the ongoing civil war in the country to plant the group's flag. 

That teaming of Iraqi and Syrian terror cells has resulted in a "a major emerging threat to Iraqi stability ... and to us," a senior administration official told reporters on Wednesday. 

But several lawmakers on Capitol Hill claim its al-Maliki's own sectarian agenda that is stoking the various conflicts inside Iraq, possibly pushing the country closer to its own civil war. 

Al-Maliki’s “mismanagement of Iraqi politics is contributing to the recent surge of violence," a group of six leading senators of defense issues wrote to Obama this week.

“If Prime Minister al-Maliki continues to marginalize the Kurds, alienate many Shia, and treat large numbers of Sunnis as terrorists, no amount of security assistance will be able to bring stability and security to Iraq,” the senators, including John McCain (R-Ariz.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), wrote. 

The letter came a day before al-Maliki arrived in Washington for a series of meetings with Obama, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other top administration officials. 

Al-Maliki met with Obama on Friday to discuss possible U.S. military and counterterrorism assistance to help Baghdad beat back al Qaeda within its borders. 

That assistance will likely include shipments of F-16 warplanes, M1 Abrams tanks and possibly unmanned surveillance drones, backed by American training and intelligence support. 

But as lawmakers like McCain and Levin continue to question al-Maliki's leadership and his role in the sectarian violence in the country, locking in congressional backing for U.S. assistance will be an uphill battle. 

On Friday, Carney defended al-Maliki's efforts to bring together a unified Iraq and warned that transition would not be as smooth as some in Congress would like. 

"When it comes to democratic governance and resolving differences between the parties, and factions, and ethnic groups, and religious groups within Iraq, that's hard work," Carney said. 

"It's every leader's responsibility in Iraq to make sure that work is done in a way that doesn't foster violence," he said.