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Obama: Iraq Will See "Tough Days Ahead," But Pullout On Schedule

STEVEN R. HURST   07/22/09 09:52 PM ET   AP

Obama Iraq

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said he pressed Iraq's prime minister on Wednesday to make room in his government and security forces for all ethnic and religious groups to prevent a resurgence of the violence and turmoil that took the country to the verge of civil war.

Vowing to hold to agreements to pull all U.S. forces out of Iraq by the end of 2011, Obama said he and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki realized violence had not ended and there "will be some tough days ahead."

"There are still those in Iraq who would murder innocent men, women and children," Obama said in a Rose Garden appearance with al-Maliki. "But make no mistake, those efforts will fail."

It was al-Maliki's first visit to the White House since Obama took office, a session that took place three weeks after U.S. troops were pulled out of Iraqi cities and towns. All U.S. combat troops are to leave in August 2010 and the remainder of the U.S. force will depart at the end of the next year.

Obama has shifted his military focus to Afghanistan and the border regions of Pakistan, vowing to wipe out al-Qaida sanctuaries and defeat the allied Islamic extremist forces of the Taliban.

U.S. officials, while praising improvement in Iraqi security forces, remain deeply concerned that al-Maliki's Shiite Muslim-dominated government has been unable or unwilling to reconcile with the country's minority Sunni Muslims and Kurds. The Sunnis had run Iraq until the U.S. ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and are still smarting over their loss of power in politics, the economy and military.

Aware of Sunni hard feelings and Kurdish desires for autonomy in an oil-rich section of the northeast of Iraq, Obama enjoined al-Maliki to be more flexible about sharing power and allowing provincial governments a greater role in decision-making.

"I reiterated my belief that Iraq will be more secure and more successful if there is a place for all Iraqi citizens to thrive, including all of Iraq's ethnic and religious groups," the president said.

Al-Maliki, contrary to past practice, said he shared Obama's goal.

"Iraq has suffered a great deal from being marginalized, from the policies of sectarianism, and from wars. We will work very hard in order not to allow any sectarian behavior an opportunity to flourish," he said.

Both leaders downplayed reports from Iraq that U.S. forces, since pulling out of the cities, have not been given the flexibility called for under the Status of Forces Agreement to respond to attacks by remnants of al-Qaida in Iraq and Shiite militants.

Obama said there had been minor differences in "strategy," but declared that "the cooperation between U.S. forces and Iraqi forces has remained high."

Al-Maliki concurred: "I believe what's happening is organizing the roles between the two sides and – and cooperation. It is not to marginalize the role of any side."

In New York on Wednesday morning, Al-Maliki met U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at U.N. headquarters and then sat down with the five veto-wielding permanent members of the U.N. Security Council to press for the lifting of all legally binding resolutions against his country stemming from Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

Obama said he restated his support for a lifting of U.N. sanctions, among them a requirement that Iraq to pay 5 percent of its oil revenues as reparations for the 1991 Gulf War. However, he said disputes between Iraq and its neighbors must be resolved before changing its U.N. status.

Al-Maliki was clearly looking toward a greater U.S. role in rebuilding the shattered country and said Washington and Baghdad were preparing "an investment conference in October" that would be open to all foreign investors.

The prime minister said he had called upon Obama to work with him "on the economic front, cultural front, educational front, commercial front, and in every possible area where the United States can play a role in supporting the Iraqi government."

Iraq's massive oil reserves remain the greatest enticement for foreign investors. Its drilling, extraction and pipeline infrastructure has crumbled over the past two decades and the petroleum sector is ripe for development. But there have been stiff barriers to outside investment, especially because the Kurds are demanding the right to sign agreements without Baghdad's approval, especially in the rich oil fields surrounding the disputed city of Kirkuk.

Iraq's parliament, heavily divided along sectarian and ethnic lines, still has not produced a law outlining how Iraq's oil wealth should be divided despite years of debate.

Obama pointedly noted that, saying he and al-Maliki "discussed issues like the hydrocarbons law and disputed internal boundaries that will be fundamental to the future of a united Iraq."

Al-Maliki is to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, other top administration officials and congressional leaders.

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Filed by Hanna Ingber Win  |