By John T. Bennett - 12/13/11 01:23 AM EST
President Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Monday sought to open a new chapter in their countries’ partnership that will focus on commerce, not war.
With a handshake viewed by the world, one era gave way to another as the two leaders appeared together on a White House stage under their nations’ flags.
“The partnership won’t end with [the] departure of the last U.S. soldier,” said al-Maliki, who is to address the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday. “It will only begin.”
Obama vowed Iraq will have a strong ally in Washington and promised al-Maliki’s country “will not stand alone.”
While the leaders spoke at length about building a strong security partnership that will include Washington selling Baghdad ample combat platforms like F-16 fighters, they also made clear that bolstering Iraq’s economy will be a major thrust of the alliance.
“There will be challenges” after U.S. troops are gone, and “many are economic,” Obama said. “After many years of war and before that, a brutal regime, it’s going to take time to further develop [a] civil society and [a] free market so that the extraordinary capacity of the Iraqi people is fully realized.”
The U.S. president noted Iraq’s economy is projected to grow faster than those of Asian powerhouses China and India, as he repeatedly sought to cast Baghdad as an emerging regional power.
While “Iraq has a lot of wealth,” al-Maliki said, it will need to lean on “U.S. expertise and foreign expertise” — and investment — to best “exploit” it.
The Iraqi prime minister said he hopes American companies will play the “largest role” in helping build sectors of Iraq’s economy that were hindered by almost a decade of war and by the Saddam Hussein regime.
Topping that list: Iraq’s oil industry, which Obama noted has the potential to become one of the world’s largest producers — and, therefore, most profitable.
Al-Maliki on Tuesday will deliver remarks at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s headquarters in Washington, where he is expected to further reach out to American companies.
More broadly, the two leaders used phrases like “an equal partnership” in describing how the nations will interact and work together in coming years.
While the duo sounded mostly upbeat, the future is full of risks for Obama.
The leaders said they do not expect a sudden surge of violence following the departure of the last U.S. soldier in coming weeks.
But thousands of State Department and private-sector contractors will remain there for the foreseeable future. Without U.S. military protection, some lawmakers and security experts say those remaining are vulnerable to attacks.
Republicans are likely to try and make the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, a major Obama 2008 campaign promise, a big issue in next year’s election.
In a scathing statement released as al-Maliki and Obama spoke at the White House, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said the two men have “failed in their responsibilities with regard to our shared security interests.”
“The sacrifices of both our peoples in a long and costly war, the continued needs of Iraq’s Security Forces and the enduring U.S. interest in a stable and democratic Iraq all demanded a continued presence of U.S. troops beyond this year,” McCain said. “But domestic political considerations in each country have been allowed to trump our common security interests.
“It did not have to be this way, and the fact that it is has everything to do with a failure of vision, commitment and leadership both in Washington and Baghdad,” McCain said.
GOP presidential candidates have questioned Obama’s decision to remove all U.S. forces by month’s end.
While the current Republican leaders, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, have been accused of taking both sides on the Iraq issue, if things go south there next year, the eventual Republican nominee is sure to use that development to bludgeon the current commander in chief.
Obama said if Iraq can pull off a government that functions while including all three of its major religious sects, it will be a “model” for the rest of the volatile region.
Asked by a reporter about his 2002 characterization of the Iraq war at its outset as a “dumb war,” Obama said he will let history judge the George W. Bush administration’s initial decision to launch the conflict.
— Daniel Strauss contributed to this report.