WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama heralded the end of the divisive Iraq war on Monday and warned Iraq's neighbors that the United States would remain a major player in the region even as it brings its troops home.
"Our strong presence in the Middle East endures," Obama said, "and the United States will never waiver in the defense of our allies, our partners and our interests."
Speaking after a morning of meetings with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Obama said other nations must not interfere with Iraq's sovereignty. While he stopped short of mentioning any countries by name, U.S. officials are closely watching how neighboring Iran may seek to influence Baghdad after U.S. troops withdraw.
Early signs of how Iraq may orient itself could come from how it handles the troubles in Syria, where the United Nations says 5,000 people have been killed in a government crackdown on protesters. While Obama has called for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down, Iraq has been more circumspect, with al-Maliki warning of civil war if Assad should fall, and abstaining from Arab League votes that suspended Syria's membership and imposed sanctions. Those positions align Iraq more closely with Iran, a major Syrian ally.
Obama said he and al-Maliki were deeply concerned by the Syrian government's assault on its own people. And Obama said he was confident that the Iraqi leader's approach to dealing with Syria was based on his own nation's interests.
"Even if there are tactical disagreements I have no doubt those decisions are made based on what's best for Iraq, not considerations of what Iran would like to see," Obama said.
Al-Maliki's trip to Washington came as the last American troops prepared to leave Iraq ahead of a Dec. 31 deadline. Just 6,000 U.S. troops remain, down from a high of 170,000 at the war's peak in 2007.
Al-Maliki said that even as the U.S. withdraws its troops from Iraq, Iraq still will need U.S. help on security issues, combating terrorism and training and equipping the Iraqi military, as well as other areas including education and developing its wealth. He said there were "very high aspirations" for the relationship between the two nations."
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