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Obama Urges Iraqis To Form Inclusive Government


It seems like President Obama can't say it enough, that the new U.S. mission in Iraq is limited. Obama is using airstrikes to push back the militant group known as the Islamic State, but he has ruled out sending ground forces back to the country. And the president insists lasting peace will only come with a new government that can overcome sectarian divisions. There is a lot to overcome though before a new government is even in place, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Soon after Iraq's president named a new prime minister and asked him to form a government, President Obama says he called to congratulate Haider al-Abadi and urge him to work quickly to name a cabinet.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Now, this new Iraqi leadership has a difficult task - it has to regain the confidence of its citizens by governing inclusively and by taking steps to demonstrate its resolve.

KELEMEN: He says the U.S. is ready to support that kind of government. The U.S. is already offering military assistance to Kurdish forces in the North and launching targeted airstrikes to prevent Islamic State militants from advancing in that region. Former ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey says he's pleased to see that the president now has a plan. But there are some hurdles.

JAMES JEFFREY: He's got to use a fair amount of military force if these guys keep pushing out towards Baghdad, towards various dams, towards refineries and oil installations. Secondly, we're dependent of course on our partners on the ground.

KELEMEN: And Jeffrey, who is now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says Iraqi politics aren't easy for Obama to navigate.

JEFFREY: He needs a government that is inclusive that the Sunni Arabs and the Kurds can accept to maintain a unified Iraq. And frankly, led by someone who isn't a corrupt, nervous Nellie, micromanaging, insecure, total-disaster-of-a-military-leader like Maliki was.

KELEMEN: Nouri al-Maliki remains a caretaker prime minister and is putting up a fight. Jeffrey describes the newly appointed Prime Minister as a good broomstick and hopes Abadi manages to sweep away Maliki. Danielle Pletka, the vice president of the American Enterprise Institute, thinks there's too much focus on personalities here.

DANIELLE PLETKA: The problem is that we've handled this as a matter of personality politics for so long that nobody takes us terribly seriously.

KELEMEN: And Pletka says she has yet to hear the Obama administration spell out a clear strategy for Iraq.

PLETKA: You can't win with tactics and you can't win with incrementalism. You actually have to turn around and make a big decision.

KELEMEN: Pletka says that big decision would be arming and training forces to counter the Islamic State both across Iraq and in Syria. She says the U.S. is being, as she put it, schizophrenic, by talking about the need for a united Iraq while directly supporting Kurdish forces, known as the Peshmerga, in the North. Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress says the key to Obama's policy in Iraq is pragmatism. And he thinks the U.S. is right to take modest steps.

BRIAN KATULIS: Can we work with forces that are capable, reliable and willing to fight? And as we see with the Kurdish Peshmerga, the answer seems to be yes. As we saw with the Iraqi security forces in June who stripped off their uniforms and left their weapons in Mosul, the answer seemed to be no.

KELEMEN: As for Iraqi politics, Katulis says the newly nominated Prime Minister is less toxic than Maliki, but the U.S. may not have much leverage here.

KATULIS: Americans have deluded themselves into thinking that we could actually orchestrate Iraqi politics. We thought that the 2007 surge of U.S. forces would open the door to some sort of political accommodation - that did not happen.

KELEMEN: And he says the U.S. deluded itself into thinking that Maliki would carry out power-sharing arrangements.

KATULIS: Much of our policy in Iraq, when we were there with troops and to this day, represented very expensive duct tape.

KELEMEN: The U.S. has helped the country stay together, Katulis says, but can't define how Iraq is run. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.