Obama, al-Maliki vow U.S.-Iraq partnership after troop withdrawal

President Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Monday hailed the departure of U.S. troops, but vowed to build a lasting relationship on security and economic and diplomatic cooperation.

The two leaders appeared together at a White House briefing following morning talks aimed at laying the foundation for a partnership following the departure of the last American soldier this month.

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“The partnership won’t end with departure of the last U.S. soldier,” al-Maliki said. “It will only begin.”

The U.S. president vowed Iraq will have a strong ally in Washington, promising Iraq “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 made clear bolstering Iraq’s economy will be a major thrust of the burgeoning 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, underscoring a major reason for a strong U.S.-Iraqi relationship.

While “Iraq has a lot wealth,” al-Maliki said, it will need to lean on “U.S. expertise and foreign expertise” to best “exploit” it.

The Iraqi prime minister said he hopes American companies will play the “largest role” in helping build sectors of its 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.

Obama vowed to expand “trade and commerce” between the two nations.

To that end, al-Maliki on Tuesday will deliver remarks at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., 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.

Al-Maliki said it is important that Washington and all other nations respect Iraqi’s sovereignty. Obama acknowledged Washington will feel compelled to take actions that will at times undercut that, but promised to consult Baghdad along the way.

Washington will help Iraq build democratic institutions that are independent and transparent, the U.S. president said.

The leaders said they do not expect a sudden surge of violence following the departure of the last U.S. soldier in the coming weeks.

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.

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Obama saluted the U.S. military for risking life and limb there for nearly nine years, while also saluting Iraqis who fought there. He also applauded Iraqis who took part in post-Saddam elections that were targeted by insurgent fighters.

Their efforts helped build a “sovereign, self-reliant and democratic Iraq,” Obama said, noting the Washington meetings “mark the end of this war.”

The leaders said most of their joint goals have been achieved, with al-Maliki saying the departure of the last U.S. fighter is an indicator of “success.”

Just a few years ago “no one would have imagined,” al-Maliki said, that Iraqi and U.S. officials and forces would have defeated al Qaeda in Iraq and sectarian violence.