What al-Maliki (and Iraq) Still Need from Obama

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Brooks Kraft / Corbis for TIME

President Barack Obama meets with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in the Rose Garden

It may have been the first time an Iraqi Prime Minister came to Washington without hat in hand, but Nouri al-Maliki still needs a great deal of help from President Obama. Six months ahead of a general election that will test his recent popularity, al-Maliki knows there's much that could go wrong in Iraq — and that the U.S. has a vital role in ensuring that things go smoothly.

You wouldn't know all that from al-Maliki's performance at a Rose Garden press conference on July 22. Standing alongside Obama, the Iraqi Prime Minister was the picture of self-confidence. He talked about broadening Iraq's relationship with the U.S. and cooperation in the area of economics, culture and education as well as a conference in October for potential investors in Iraq. "All of this comes as a natural consequence of [Iraq's] stability," he said.

But in private, Iraqi officials concede that the stability is, well, unstable. Before any meaningful economic and cultural cooperation takes place, they say, the U.S. must shepherd Iraq through to the elections, scheduled for January 2010. They worry that the Obama Administration, eager to move on to more pressing problems at home and abroad, may not realize just how fragile Iraq is. The Obama Administration "must not lose its focus" in Iraq, Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari told journalists on July 21.

But what exactly can the U.S. do? Most reports out of Iraq these days suggest that American influence is waning and that the speed of the decline will only accelerate as the U.S. military presence diminishes. Already, the 130,000 troops in Iraq are confined to military bases; they need the permission of al-Maliki's government to venture into urban centers, a sensitive issue that Obama did his best to downplay to reporters on Wednesday.

Still, Zebari said the U.S. has a great deal of political clout in Iraq. It has better ties to the country's restive minorities — the Kurds and Sunni Arabs — than al-Maliki, who is a Shi'ite. The three communities have many deep-seated differences that, in the heat of an election campaign, could boil over into violence. American mediation could help prevent that. Mediation is also required over crucial pieces of legislation, like the long-delayed Hydrocarbons Law — a bill to apportion oil revenues, a subject that divides Iraqis along ethnic lines between Arab and Kurd.

Iraq also needs American good offices to improve relations with many of its neighbors. Most urgently, al-Maliki would like the Obama Administration to lean on Kuwait to let Iraq off the hook on reparations owed since the 1991 Gulf War. Six years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq remains technically under the U.N.'s Chapter 7, which designates the nation as a threat to international peace. Under long-standing U.N. resolutions, Baghdad sets aside 5% of its oil revenues (about $100 million a month) as reparations, and most of this money goes to Kuwait.

The Kuwaitis have lobbied hard to keep the resolution in place, to the chagrin of Iraqis, who feel they should no longer be paying for Saddam's crimes. "Iraq is no longer representing a threat to international peace and security because there is a democracy in Iraq, not a dictatorship," al-Maliki said at Wednesday's brief press conference. Obama agreed. "It, I think, would be a mistake for Iraq to continue to be burdened by the sins of a deposed dictator," he said. "We will work diligently with Iraq so that in fact Iraq is no longer within Chapter 7."

Iraqi officials hope Washington can persuade the Kuwaitis to go along, ideally before the U.N. General Assembly in the fall. A bonus for al-Maliki, he would be able to portray himself as the man who got the Kuwaiti yoke off Iraq's back — a sure vote getter in January.