Obama and Abadi: On Iran Role in Iraq

April 14, 2015

On April 14, President Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi held talks at the White House. During a photo op, Obama answered a question about Iran’s role in Iraq. The following is an excerpt of his remarks.

QUESTION: Mr. President, in terms of Iran’s involvement in Iraq -- are you comfortable with the level of coordination that’s been going on with Iran, even if it’s through a third party?
 
PRESIDENT OBAMA:  This is something that we discussed extensively.  I think that, as I’ve said before and I will repeat, we expect Iran to have an important relationship with Iraq as a close neighbor.  And obviously the fact that Iraq is a Shia-majority country means that it will be influenced and have relations with Iran as well.  And at the point in which Daesh or ISIL was surging and the Iraqi government was still getting organized at that point, I think the mobilization of Shia militias was something that was understood to protect Baghdad or other critical areas. 
 
Once Prime Minister Abadi took power, once he reorganized the government and the security forces, once the coalition came in at the invitation of and in an agreement with a sovereign Iraqi government, then our expectation is from that point on, any foreign assistance that is helping to defeat ISIL has to go through the Iraqi government.  That’s how you respect Iraqi sovereignty. That’s how you recognize the democratic government that was hard-earned and is being upheld in the work that Prime Minister Abadi is doing in reaching out to all the various factions inside of Iraq.
 
And so I think Prime Minister Abadi’s position has been that he welcomes help, as you just heard, but it needs to be help that is not simply coordinated with the Iraqi government but ultimately is answerable to the Iraqi government and is funneled through the chain of command within the Iraqi government.  And that’s what we’ve been very careful to do.  I’ve made clear from the outset that ISIL was an enemy and we will make sure that they do not threaten the United States and we will go after them wherever they are.  But when we are working with a strong ally and partner like Iraq, it is very important for us to coordinate our activities so that the impression is not that the United States is somehow moving back into Iraq, but rather the United States is doing what’s ultimately best for the Iraqi people, even as we join in fighting a common enemy.
 
And that’s why Prime Minister Abadi’s clear statement, both inside of Iraq and to the world community, that it is important for all fighting forces to be under unified control of the Iraqi government is so important.  And I think it’s particularly significant that that view is shared among a wide range of political parties inside of Iraq and was echoed by Grand Ayatollah Sistani just recently.  It sends a clear message that ultimately Iraq is in control of its own destiny.  And part of that means that those who possess arms and have the ability to apply force and defend their country have to be under a single government. 
 
As Prime Minister Abadi mentioned, that's particularly important in order to ensure that the government is accountable for the actions of armed forces so that if there are criminal acts or sectarian retributions that are carried out, that ultimately Prime Minister Abadi is able to call those forces to account and to control them, to make sure that you don't have a backlash as consequence of the efforts to clear territory from ISIL’s control.
 
So our coordination I think has consistently improved over time as Prime Minister Abadi has gained greater control over Iraqi security forces.  As the training efforts and equipping efforts that we're engaged in continue to improve, coordinating how our air power can support and expand into a more effective Iraqi security force deployment is going to continue to be critical.  But none of this works unless there is a perception among all the parties involved -- Shia, Sunni, Kurd, and others inside of Iraq -- that this is an inclusive government that is listening to the voices of all the people and including them in decision-making.  And the fact that Prime Minister Abadi is doing that makes our job and the coalition’s job of coordination much easier.