Obama pledges more humanitarian aid to visiting Iraqi premier

Obama pledges more humanitarian aid to visiting Iraqi premier
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi and President Obama answer reporters' questions at the White House on April 14. (Mike Theiler / Pool Photo)

President Obama announced $200 million in additional humanitarian aid to Iraq on Tuesday but was noncommittal on the request from visiting Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi for more sophisticated weapons to fight Islamic State militants.

Obama said Iraqi forces and the U.S.-led military coalition have made "serious progress" in pushing the Sunni militants out of Iraq. He said "about a quarter of the territory" the group seized in northern and western Iraq last year has been recovered, although the militants still hold several major cities.


The two leaders spoke to reporters after they met for 38 minutes in the Oval Office. Abadi is making his first official visit to Washington since the White House began launching airstrikes against the group that has declared an Islamic caliphate in Syria and Iraq.

The war is likely to increase in intensity in coming months as Iraqi forces backed by U.S. airstrikes seek to recapture Mosul, a city in northern Iraq that the militants have declared their capital.

U.S. officials said Abadi's government wants Washington to provide Apache attack helicopters, small surveillance drones and a postponement of payment on the $4 billion it owes for F-16 fighter jets.

Asked whether the administration would agree, Obama said only that "we are continually improving our coordination to make sure that Iraqi security forces are in a position to succeed in our common mission."

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Abadi did not present a "specific request" for military assistance in his meeting with Obama. But Iraq's defense minister met Tuesday in the Pentagon with Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to discuss U.S. military support.

The administration is pushing Abadi to do more to bring irregular Shiite militias, including some armed and trained by Iran, under government control. Some of the militias have carried out brutal reprisals against Sunni Muslims in communities retaken from Islamic State.

Abadi said he has "zero tolerance for any violations of human rights," insisting that "criminal parties and outliers" were responsible for the abuses, not the military.

Abadi said he was "keen to bring all fighters" under government control, noting that "tens of thousands of volunteers" had joined the Shiite militias. "Unfortunately, some of them commit acts that harm the reputation of Iraq," he said.

Obama repeatedly praised Abadi's attempts to form an inclusive government, and took a thinly veiled swipe at his predecessor, Nouri Maliki, whom the White House blamed for persecuting Sunnis and increasing sectarian tensions.

"In a significant change from past practices, I think both Sunni leaders and Kurdish leaders feel that they are heard in the halls of power, that they are participating in governance in Baghdad," Obama said. Abadi, he said, "has kept true to his commitments to reach out to them."

The U.S. has increased shipments of weapons and ammunition, including tanks and mine-resistant armored personnel carriers, to Abadi's government in recent months. U.S. special forces are training Iraqi troops at four bases in the country and work beside Iraqi commanders at joint operations centers in Baghdad and Irbil.

The additional $200 million in humanitarian aid is more than double the amount Washington has given Iraq over the last 18 months, officials said.

Christopher Harmer, a military analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, a nonpartisan public policy group in Washington, said the aid package could help Abadi's fragile government.

"There aren't a lot of people inside Iraq that see the government as being legitimate," Harmer said. "Whether it's U.S. airstrikes or Iranian ground forces, the Iraqi government has been completely emasculated because the forces making a difference against [Islamic State] are not led by Iraqis."


After he took office in September, Abadi came under pressure from U.S. diplomats to fire military officers who the U.S. said were incompetent or openly corrupt. In November, Abadi replaced 36 commanders.

Last month, when Iraqi forces and Shiite militias had stalled in their effort to retake Tikrit, another Islamic State stronghold, Abadi telephoned Vice President Joe Biden.

"When I spoke with him," Biden recalled in a speech at National Defense University last week, "he made it clear that he wanted the United States and the coalition engaged 'all over Iraq,' was his phrase."

U.S. warplanes, which had not played a role in the Tikrit assault, soon began pounding Islamic State positions around the city. The militants' defenses collapsed within days, and Iraqi forces retook the city.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said the administration shouldn't open the spigot for military aid unless the Abadi government can bring the Shiite militias under control and incorporate Sunni soldiers in the fight.

"About the only leverage we have with the Iraqi government is through our military assistance," Schiff said. "I don't think we should give up that lever except in small increments."