WASHINGTON -- After years of failing to heed U.S. advice to broaden his outreach to Iraq's Sunni minority and to accept more U.S. counterterrorism assistance, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki now appears ready to listen, according to senior Obama administration officials.
As an incipient sectarian war between Mr. Maliki's Shiite-led government and al-Qaida-linked Sunni extremists has boiled over in recent weeks, the administration has moved to rush additional arms and intelligence to Iraq, much of which Mr. Maliki had previously rejected.
"We had to get to zero in order to build back up a real security relationship," said one senior official, who described a new level of cooperation following the wilderness years after U.S. troops left Iraq in 2011. Iraqis "didn't really believe they would get their sovereignty back. ... They had to test it, and then figure out [they] actually need" the assistance.
But senior Republican lawmakers, along with some Democrats and outside Iraq experts, say the problem was not that Mr. Maliki wasn't listening, but that President Barack Obama wasn't speaking loudly enough to get his attention.
They charge that Mr. Obama dropped the ball on Iraq long ago, when he failed to negotiate a long-term security agreement that would have left a residual American force behind, and that he paid too little mind to the developing crisis.
The absence of the U.S. military, and the lack of close political attention that would have accompanied those troops, allowed Mr. Maliki to discriminate against the Sunni population and created fertile ground for revolt, critics charge. Although Iraqi Sunnis have little love for al-Qaida, they appear to dislike Mr. Maliki even more.
If the troops had stayed, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said, "this would have been a very different outcome. The absence of a follow-on force allowed security to fall down and the vacuum was filled ... by al-Qaida."
Administration officials describe such charges as revisionist history. They note that the withdrawal of troops from Iraq was negotiated by the George W. Bush administration and that any residual force in Iraq would have been small in number, with limited tasks.
Late last week, White House press secretary Jay Carney congratulated Mr. Maliki for "conducting internal outreach to Iraqi local, tribal, and national leaders, including Sunnis and Kurds," and formally inviting Sunni tribal leaders to join the fight against al-Qaida. Mr. Maliki's council of ministers, Mr. Carney noted approvingly, decided to extend state benefits to tribal forces killed or injured in the fighting and to rush humanitarian aid to other Sunnis in need.
Over the weekend, Brett McGurk, the State Department's deputy assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, traveled to Iraq to meet with Mr. Maliki.