Syrian conflict complicates U.S.-Iraq relations

Members of the Iraqi delegation, from left to right: Karim Almusawi, president of The Iraqi Center for Development; Yassin Majid, member of Iraq\'s parliament; Faleh al-Fayyad, national security adviser in Iraq and Sami al-Askari, member of Iraq\'s parliament. (WTOP/J.J. Green)

J.J. Green,

WASHINGTON – The U.S. invasion of Iraq almost 10 years ago opened a violent chapter in a relationship that has yet to end. While the U.S. war is over, Iraq officials admit the country is still struggling to stand on its own.

The spillover of violence from Syria tops a list of growing concerns that a delegation of senior Iraqi officials are in Washington to discuss. The officials suggest that Iraq’s security is threatened by the stalemate between the Syrian government and the Free Syrian Army rebels.

The meetings come at a critical time, as the Syrian conflict rages next door to Iraq and U.S. military concerns about it grow. Under pressure to send weapons to the Syrian rebels, the head of U.S. Central Command told senators the situation on the ground there is too complex to arm the rebels.

“I think if we know who the weapons are going to, it would certainly complicate Assad’s stay in power,” said Marine Gen. James Mattis.

Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee other nations are arming the rebels and there’s evidence some weapons are falling into the hands of enemies of the U.S.

Iraqi National Security Adviser Faleh al-Fayyad — in D.C. to discuss the U.S.-Iraq relationship under the Strategic Framework Agreement — told reporters that terrorism which may emanate from the situation in Syria is among Iraq’s main national security concerns.

Al-Fayyad and other officials who met with American journalists made a point of reminding them that the Iraqi government tried to prevent the Syrian conflict.

“In 2009, we faced off in a very strong confrontation with Syria. Iraq withdrew its ambassador from Damascus and demanded the formation of an international investigation,” said Yassin Majid, a member of Iraq’s parliament.

Majid also said all of Iraq’s neighboring countries — including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Turkey and Iran — sided with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“Unfortunately, the United States itself was not with us 100 percent,” he said. “We alone stood against Bashar al-Assad.”

“The problem is now all the others have discovered that Bashar al-Assad is a dictator,” said Majid.

According to the United Nations, an estimated 2.5 million people are displaced inside of Syria, and over 678,000 people have fled to neighboring countries, including Iraq. Many of them, according to U.S. intelligence sources, have engaged in terrorist acts inside Iraq.

“Assad must halt his campaign of killing and crimes against his own people now,” President Barack Obama said in February of last year. “He must step aside and allow a democratic transition to proceed immediately.”

A year later, Assad is still defiant and in power.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi delegation is meeting with a host of senior U.S. officials to discuss a range of issues.

“Over the past week al-Fayyad has met with State Department principals on human rights, the U.S./Iraq security relationship and strategic energy policy,” says State Department spokesman Mike Lavallee.

Vice President Joe Biden and Deputy National Security Adviser Anthony Blinken met with al-Fayyad as well. Biden expressed “the United States’ deep and enduring commitment to the U.S. partnership with Iraq under the U.S.-Iraq Strategic Framework Agreement,” according to a White House statement.

“The coming year would provide many opportunities to broaden and deepen U.S. and Iraqi cooperation,” the statement said.

The Iraqi delegation has made it abundantly clear it has high hopes for those opportunities.

“Iraq aims to be a realistic and reliable partner and friend to the U.S. in many aspects — in energy, oil, fighting, in defense, fighting terrorism and stabilizing the region,” said Sami al-Askari, a member of Iraq’s parliament.

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