Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki speaks on US-Iraqi relations at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington.
Following a visit from the prime minister of Iraq, a country in the grip of its worst violence in five years, the United States and Iraq agreed Friday on the need for more equipment for Iraqi forces to fight the growing influence of al Qaeda groups, according to a joint statement released after the meeting between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
"Both sides emphasized -- on an urgent basis -- the need for additional equipment for Iraqi forces to conduct ongoing operations in remote areas where terrorist camps are located," the statement read. "The Iraqi delegation stressed its desire to purchase U.S. equipment as a means of strengthening long-term institutional ties with the United States, and confirmed its commitment to ensure strict compliance with U.S. laws and regulations on the use of such equipment."
Maliki met with Obama Friday afternoon at the White House. Following their private talks, Obama told Maliki that the United States wants an inclusive, prosperous Iraq free of violence.
In a speech Thursday, the prime minister had cast the United States and Iraq as partners that had “shed blood together fighting terrorism.”
The visit to Washington is Maliki’s first in two years. For the prime minister, who pushed to get American troops out of Iraq four years ago, the request for help is an illustration of an increasingly dire security situation.
This is the deadliest year in Iraq since 2008. More than 7,000 people have been killed, according to the casualty database Iraq Body Count. Iraqis say that they live in constant fear of explosions and assassinations.
Maliki, in an Op-Ed earlier this week in The New York Times, blamed al Qaeda and its affiliates, and portrayed the attackers as common enemies of the United States and Iraq.
“Imagine how Americans would react if you had a terrorist organization operating on your own soil that killed dozens and maimed hundreds every week,” he wrote. “For Iraqis, that isn’t a hypothetical question.”
Juma al-Quraishi, who owns a shop in central Baghdad, said a car bomb went off just outside his store not long ago, targeting an official. He said he expects the situation to only get worse.
"The situation is not going to improve, even after the elections, because the political infighting, the parties are working for their own interests only, they do not have loyalty to the country," al-Quraishi said. "The foremost benefactors from this are the neighboring countries. They try to make Iraq their battlefield."
Nineteen-year-old Ahmad Khdayr, who works in a market in Sadr City in northeast Baghdad, said he feels constantly afraid.
"The security situation is bad all over the country, we are scared all the time," he said. "I go from my house to work, from work back to my house, and even at work I am scared."
Outside experts and some American officials take a different view — blaming a power struggle between religious factions within Iraq and spillover from the civil war in Syria, which shares a border with Iraq.
U.S. officials blame Maliki for moving closer to Iran and refusing, against requests from Washington, to give Sunni and Kurdish minorities in the Iraqi government, which is led by Shiites.
A group of senators, including John McCain, R-Ariz., sent a letter to Obama earlier this week urging him to press Maliki to come up with a “comprehensive political and security strategy that can stabilize the country.”
The letter blamed a resurgent al Qaeda and the spillover from Syria, but it also faulted Maliki for an autocratic leadership style that has alienated Sunnis and Kurds and has driven some Sunnis to join al Qaeda.
On Thursday, Maliki said in a speech that the United States and Iraq were partners that “shed blood together fighting terrorism.” He wants American Apache attack helicopters and other military help to fight militants.
“We have a request — I won’t say a right — it’s a request,” Maliki said Thursday at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington. “It’s not only about Iraq, but it’s about all the countries in the world that are suffering from terrorism.”
In the speech, he denied that violence in his country is being fomented by sectarian strife among Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish factions.
“There is no problem between Sunnis and Shiites,” he said. “The Sunnis are killed today but also the Shiites,” he said. “It is al Qaeda who is killing all of the Iraqis.”
Maliki, in a December 2010 interview with The Wall Street Journal, ruled out the presence of American troops in his country by the end of the following year. The last American troops left in December 2011.
NBC News' Ghazi Balkiz and Becky Bratu and Reuters contributed to this report.
Hadi Mizban / AP
A woman grieves for her sister, who died in a bombing, while inspecting the site of the car bomb attack in Baghdad on Oct. 19.
First published November 1 2013, 3:33 PM