Top Iraq lawmaker to visit Washington next week

by Reuters
Thursday, 16 January 2014 22:21 GMT

By Missy Ryan

WASHINGTON, Jan 16 (Reuters) - The speaker of Iraq's parliament, Usama al-Nujaifi, will visit Washington next week to meet with senior Obama administration officials as Iraq seeks to fend off a surge in violence.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Nujaifi, one of most senior politicians from Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority, would make the visit in response to an invitation made last fall by Vice President Joe Biden.

Nujaifi is expected to meet with senior officials from the White House and State Department, the official said.

Biden has played a leading role in U.S. dealings with Iraq as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has sought to reverse a surge in violence over the last year, and especially as the Iraqi leader hopes to rebuff a campaign by al Qaeda-linked militants to take over parts of western Iraq.

But Maliki, a member of Iraq's Shi'ite majority empowered after Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein was ousted in 2003, also faces increasing criticism of his management of Iraq's delicate political situation.

Nujaifi has been an outspoken critic of what he has called authoritarianism on the part of Maliki's government, which he blames for fueling sectarian tensions.

Some Sunni tribesmen hostile to Maliki's government have aligned with al Qaeda-linked militants in western Anbar province, a Sunni stronghold along the border with Syria.

They seized the city of Falluja on Jan. 1 and have been locked in a standoff with Iraqi troops and tanks around the city ever since, intensifying U.S. concerns about spillover from the war in Syria.

The United States withdrew fully from Iraq at the end of 2011.

Alarmed about growing violence in Iraq, the Obama administration has been working for months to speed up shipments of a range of weapons to Maliki, including Hellfire missiles, surveillance drones and F-16 fighter jets.

It has also been seeking to provide Apache attack helicopters that Maliki has repeatedly requested. So far, congressional concerns about Maliki's treatment of minorities and about his ties with neighboring Iran have held up those shipments.

U.S. defense officials say they are hoping to be able to respond quickly to a new request from Maliki, to provide replenishment of light arms and ammunition, including tank rounds, made during a recent phone call with Biden.

The weapons request was first reported by the Washington Post.

"We will work hard to provide" the equipment requested by Maliki, a senior U.S. defense official said on condition of anonymity. (Reporting by Missy Ryan; Editing by Dan Grebler)

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