Bloomberg News

Obama Says U.S. Focus in Iraq Turning to Economic Development

December 15, 2011

Dec. 12 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama said the U.S. will focus on Iraq’s continued economic development and increased oil production as the American military force pulls out after almost nine years of conflict.

With the last U.S. troops leaving by the end of the year, “Iraq is assuming its rightful place among the community of nations,” Obama said at a White House news conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. “Our goal is simply to make sure that Iraq succeeds.”

The president said that includes fostering additional foreign investment in Iraq and bolstering oil output. Iraq has the world’s fifth-biggest crude reserves and pumped 2.71 million barrels a day last month, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Obama and Maliki met at the White House to discuss an agenda that included future U.S. economic and military assistance, the influence of neighboring Iran and Iraq’s regional security and stability.

The last American troops in Iraq will depart “with their heads held high,” Obama said. The U.S. won’t leave “big footprints” in Iraq once those forces leave by the end of the year, he said.

Maliki said through a translator that while Iraq is ready to rely on its own forces for security, “there remains a need of cooperation” with the U.S.

Link to U.S.

Maliki, a former rebel who led the first full-time government after the toppling of Saddam Hussein and who is now serving his second term as premier, needs to maintain a strong link with the U.S. as American forces end their mission Dec. 31, according to Ken Pollack, director for the Persian Gulf at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration.

“Maliki needs to be able to show the people of Iraq and the Iranian government that the U.S. has not abandoned Iraq,” Pollack said. “The Iraqi people want the troops gone but they don’t necessarily want to be cast adrift. And they’re very nervous.”

Obama, seeking a second term as president, is showcasing the end of military involvement with events this week that include the talks today and a news conference, augmented by an address to U.S. troops at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, on Dec. 14.

Obama “needs to demonstrate that we haven’t just walked away from Iraq, that while we’re withdrawing troops, we still have a strong relationship, and we’re still paying a lot of attention,” Pollack said in a telephone interview before the White House meeting.

Critics of Withdrawal

The U.S. pullout has drawn criticism from Republicans.

Senator John McCain, who ran against Obama for the presidency in 2008, said Obama and Maliki “have failed in their responsibilities with regard to our shared interest.”

The U.S. interest in a stable Iraq demands U.S. troops remain beyond this year, the Arizona Republican said in a statement. “But domestic political considerations in each country have been allowed to trump our common security interests.”

The agreement that kept troops in the country through the end of the year was negotiated in 2008 under President George W. Bush. The Iraqi government declined to provide immunity from prosecution for U.S. troops to stay into next year.

In the war, which began in March 2003, 4,487 Americans were killed and 32,226 were wounded in action, according to Pentagon figures as of Dec. 9.

Remaining Forces

The U.S. military is withdrawing its remaining 8,000 military personnel and 5,000 contractors from Iraq as the year- end deadline nears. That is down from a peak of about 300,000 Americans in Iraq in 2007, including almost 170,000 uniformed personnel as well as civilians and contractors.

Iraq remains deeply troubled and restiveness in the Persian Gulf may have consequences for the oil market and the global economy.

“Iraq remains weak and fractious,” Pollack, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in testimony on Nov. 15. “It is not ready to be without an external peacekeeping presence” and “its political leadership has not demonstrated anything like the maturity that will be required to prevent the country from sliding back into civil strife.”

Strategic Framework

The agenda for talks includes hammering out bilateral agreements and refining the U.S.-Iraq strategic framework governing economic aid, rebuilding infrastructure, educational exchanges, military assistance, joint exercises, defense of its air space and concerns about Iraq’s neighbor, Iran, and its nuclear program.

The U.S. will maintain its embassy in Baghdad and affiliated consulates after Dec. 31. About 16,000 personnel will serve under the embassy’s umbrella next year, according to State Department figures.

About 1,700 of them will include diplomats and subject- matter experts in fields such as business and agriculture as well as law enforcement officers, while 5,000 will be security contractors to guard staff and facilities.

--With assistance from Kate Andersen Brower, Margaret Talev and Viola Gienger in Washington. Editors: Joe Sobczyk, Laurie Asseo

To contact the reporters on this story: Roger Runningen in Washington at rrunningen@bloomberg.net; Hans Nichols in Washington, DC at hnichols2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva in Washington at msilva34@bloomberg.net


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