President Donald Trump greets Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi upon his arrival to the White House in Washington, D.C., on Monday.
By Vivian Salama and Robert Burns / Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Emerging from his first meeting with President Donald Trump, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said Monday he was assured the U.S. will accelerate its support for his country’s struggle against the Islamic State group.
“I think they are prepared to do more” than the administration of former President Barack Obama, he said. Mr. Obama was reluctant to commit large numbers of U.S. troops to combating IS in Iraq, but his approach, which relied on training and supporting local forces, has succeeded in pushing the militants out of much of the territory they once held.
The Iraqi premier’s White House visit came before Mr. Trump hosts a meeting geared toward advancing the fight against the extremist group.
Speaking at a Washington think tank shortly after his visit — which was partially intended to smooth over any lingering hurt feelings about the administration’s original decision to include Iraq in its travel ban — Mr. al-Abadi said he got the impression that the Trump administration will take a more aggressive approach, although he did not say what that might entail.
“I think this administration wants to be more engaged in fighting terrorism,” he said. “I sense a difference in terms of being head-to-head with terrorism.” He added, however, that military force is not necessarily the most effective tool. “There are better ways for defeating terrorism.”
Asked whether he had seen specific Trump administration improvements to the previous administration’s approach, Mr. al-Abadi said: “To be honest, I haven’t seen a full plan. I know there is a plan. I haven’t seen it. We have our own plan.”
Though Mr. al-Abadi praised the Trump administration as being willing to become more engaged in the fight against Islamist militants in Iraq and Syria, he warned that sending sizable numbers of troops would not defeat them.
“We have to be careful,” Mr. al-Abadi said. “Committing troops is one thing. Fighting terrorism is another thing.”
He added that governments and militaries succeed only if they win the trust and support of the civilian population through measures like anti-corruption reforms and good governance.
Mr. al-Abadi arrived in Washington having already won one concession from the Trump administration. The temporary ban on travelers from seven countries was rewritten to exclude Iraq, after several Iraqi officials and U.S. lawmakers objected to Iraq’s inclusion, noting the risks and sacrifices that many Iraqis made assisting U.S. troops during and after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. U.S. courts have blocked the rewritten ban.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis recently presented Mr. Trump with the outlines of a comprehensive approach to defeating IS and other extremist groups on a global scale, but specifics are yet to be worked out. Officials have indicated that the approach is unlikely to depart radically from the Obama strategy, at least with regard to the ongoing efforts in Iraq and Syria.
Mr. al-Abadi appeared at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a federally funded think tank. The prime minister spoke optimistically of completing the recapture of Iraqi lands still held by IS. He said government forces, working effectively with Kurdish forces known as peshmerga and supported by American air power and military advisers, are on the brink of fully liberating Mosul, the northern city that has been IS’s main Iraqi stronghold since 2014.
In brief remarks in the presence of reporters during Mr. al-Abadi’s White House visit, Mr. Trump raised his frequently stated objections to the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by his predecessor, but did not talk specifically about how he intends to support Iraq.
“One of the things I did ask is, ‘Why did President Obama sign that agreement with Iran?’ because nobody has been able to figure that one out,” Mr. Trump said. “But maybe someday we’ll be able to figure that one out.”
Mr. Trump said he hopes to address the “vacuum” that was created when IS moved into Iraq and added that “we shouldn’t have gone in” to Iraq in the first place.
Mr. Trump campaigned on a promise to dramatically ramp up the assault on IS and has vowed to eradicate it.
Mr. Trump greeted Mr. al-Abadi in the Oval Office shortly after FBI Director James Comey said the FBI and Justice Department have no information to substantiate Mr. Trump’s claims that Mr. Obama wiretapped him before the election. As reporters were leaving, Mr. al-Abadi leaned over to Mr. Trump and said jokingly, “We have nothing to do with the wiretap.”
In his think tank appearance later, Mr. al-Abadi again struck a humorous note at Mr. Trump’s expense. After expressing hope that Iraq will succeed in ending decades of internal conflict, he said his country should be wary of partitioning areas along ethnic or religious lines as some have recommended.
“We have to build bridges with others and work with others to be more secure,” he said. “Otherwise, what do you do? You build walls? What do you do?” He then grinned widely at the allusion — intended or not — to Mr. Trump’s plan to erect a wall on the border with Mexico.
Later this week Mr. al-Abadi will be attending a 68-nation meeting to discuss the coalition against IS.
The Washington Post and McClatchy Newspapers contributed.