Any criticism of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's style of governance during his trip to D.C. this week took a back seat to grave concerns among U.S. leaders of a sharp rise in al-Qaida attacks in the Middle Eastern nation.
A new Islamic extremist group operating under the banner of the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant," abbreviated as ISIS, is increasingly conducting attacks against Shia Muslims there, and is partially responsible for growing complication in violence in neighboring Syria. The instability in Iraq is further heightened by a fragile state security infrastructure, still reeling from the full U.S. military withdrawal in 2011.
This domestic violence chips away at the government al-Maliki is trying to hold together ahead of key elections in April 2014.
"It has a devastating psychological impact on the country," said one senior administration official, who spoke to reporters on the condition on anonymity. There were 38 suicide bombing attacks in September, the official said, that largely targeted Shia civilians and at funerals and playgrounds.
It is incumbent on the Iraqis to explain to the U.S. how it is planning to combat this situation, which the Obama administration stresses cannot be simply in a military response.
"[We're] putting a lot of pressure on the government to act. What we don't want the Iraqis to do is just take a security-centric approach to this," the official said.
Maliki plans to meet with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office on Friday, according to The Washington Post, which could result in an announcement of further U.S. cooperation in Iraq's fight against this growing insurgency.
The official said the U.S. is not planning to send any ground forces, even in an advisory role, back to the Middle Eastern nation.
"There are quite urgent requirements from Iraq's security situation," Iraqi Ambassador to the U.S. Lukman Faily told The Post. "We will be waiting for fuller responses from our American friends to tell us what they can offer."
Obama will not find much support at home for increased support of the al-Maliki administration. A group of bipartisan senators, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., sent a letter to the president expressing their lack of confidence in the Iraqi leader.
"Prime Minister Maliki's mismanagement of Iraqi politics is contributing to the recent surge of violence," they wrote. "By too often pursuing a sectarian and authoritarian agenda, Prime Minister Maliki and his allies are disenfranchising Sunni Iraqis, marginalizing Kurdish Iraqis, and alienating the many Shia Iraqis who have a democratic, inclusive, and pluralistic vision for their country."
"This failure of governance is driving many Sunni Iraqis into the arms of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and fueling the rise of violence," read the letter.
The senators also pushed Obama to identify Iran as a driving force for the ongoing turmoil in Iraq. When asked about the role Iran plays in the discussions between Iraqi and American leaders, the administration officials told reporters: "Just look at a map. There's no question the Iranians have influence."
Obama's recent rhetoric indicates he will have to walk a fine line in addressing policies toward Iran. A newfound rapprochement followed the U.N. General Assembly in September, which Obama believes could lead to lifting sanctions on that country's nuclear program in exchange for its agreement on nuclear limitations.
Vice President Joe Biden met with Maliki for breakfast on Wednesday, and was scheduled to meet with him again Thursday afternoon.
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