WASHINGTON – Facing a deadly resurgence of al-Qaida in Iraq, President Barack Obama signaled Friday that he will begin increasing U.S. military support for Baghdad after five years of reducing it.
The new U.S. plan represents a remarkable shift for Obama, whose administration trumpeted the 2011 withdrawal of the last U.S. troops from Iraq as a major achievement and has since shifted its attention to other regional challenges, such as Syria, Egypt and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Following a White House meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Obama said he shares al-Maliki’s fears about militants’ growing foothold in Iraq’s western province and will join the Iraqi leader’s effort to crack down. Administration officials said this would include growing intelligence support and new weaponry.
“We had a lot of discussion about how we can work together to push back against that terrorist organization that operates not only in Iraq, but also poses a threat to the region and to the United States,” Obama said.
Closer cooperation also marks an abrupt turnaround for al-Maliki, who openly opposed reaching a deal to keep even a limited number of U.S. soldiers in Iraq after 2011, insisting the country could take care of itself.
After nine years of U.S. occupation, the prospect of closer U.S. military ties remains deeply unpopular with the Iraqi public. But violence in Iraq last month surged to the highest level since 2008, with 964 Iraqis killed, and some fear the country is slipping back into civil war.
Al-Maliki badly needs the kind of help his country received from Washington from 2006 to 2009 in battling Sunni extremists. And the Obama administration, despite a deep reluctance to be further entangled in the Middle East, believes it cannot afford a further strengthening of the al-Qaida affiliate, called the Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant, which has been held responsible for the deaths of 7,000 Iraqis this year alone.
Administration officials say that while they are not ready to send soldiers to Iraq, they will push for Congress to give Iraq the Apache helicopters, missiles and other equipment it is seeking, and will step up intelligence support so that they can help find and destroy the Qaida bases.
The turmoil in Syria has added to the instability, with fighters and weaponry crossing over the border into Iraq.