U.S. President Barack Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki hailed the beginning of “a new chapter” for Iraq, one without the presence of American troops after a nearly nine-year war.
Monday’s talks at the White House focused on how the U.S. and Iraq will cooperate without the presence of U.S. forces which are in the final phase of a Dec. 31 withdrawal. The two leaders also discussed issues such as trade, energy, education and U.S. investment in Iraq.
In a news conference after the talks, Obama said: “After nearly nine years our war in Iraq ends this month.” He said U.S. troops have served with honor.
Obama and Maliki will later lay wreaths at nearby Arlington National Cemetery, where some of the nearly 4,500 U.S. service members killed in Iraq since the war began in 2003 are buried.
On Wednesday, the Iraqi prime minister is expected to accompany Obama to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where the U.S. president to will thank troops returning home from Iraq.
In Brussels Monday, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance will permanently shut down its seven-year training mission in Iraq and withdraw all of its soldiers at the end of the month.
The decision follows Obama’s announcement in October that U.S. troops would return home at year’s end after talks to keep thousands of trainers in Iraq fell apart over Baghdad’s insistence that all NATO personnel in the country be subject to Iraqi laws and jurisprudence.
U.S. officials had asked for about 3,000 U.S. troops to stay in Iraq, but the Iraqi government was not able to push any agreement on immunity through parliament. The failure to agree on an immunity deal also led to the NATO pullout.
These developments have heightened concern about a power vacuum in the country that could be exploited by neighboring Iran.
Both countries have Shi’ite majorities and many Iraqi politicians spent time in exile in Iran during then-dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime. One of Maliki’s main allies – anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr – is believed to have spent most of his time in Iran.
Several thousand U.S. troops remain in Iraq, more than eight years after invading the country to oust Saddam Hussein.