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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. In less than three weeks, the last U.S. combat troops will leave Iraq, ending a controversial chapter in American foreign policy. How the two countries proceed from there was a key topic of discussion today when President Obama met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki at the White House. The two sides pledged to maintain strong ties, but as NPR's Jackie Northam reports, both are worried about security in general and, specifically, Iran.
JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: In 2007, at the height of U.S. involvement, there were some 170,000 American troops fighting in Iraq. As part of his presidential campaign, Mr. Obama pledged to bring every last soldier home. It took a bit longer than he promised, but as he stood next to Prime Minister Maliki after their meeting today, the president was upbeat and optimistic about Iraq's future.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We're here to mark the end of this war, to honor the sacrifices of all those who made this day possible and to turn the page, begin a new chapter in the history between our countries, a normal relationship between sovereign nations, an equal partnership based on mutual interests and mutual respect.
NORTHAM: In the past, President Obama referred to the conflict in Iraq as a dumb war. Today, he sidestepped the question whether he still felt that way, saying history will judge the original decision to invade the country. Mr. Obama said the U.S. wants to build a more comprehensive relationship with Iraq, expanding trade and energy ties, among many other things. Speaking through a translator, Prime Minister Maliki said Iraq will continue to need help from the U.S.
PRIME MINISTER NOURI AL-MALIKI: (Through translator) It remains a need of cooperation with the United States of America in the security issues and in the area of training. And we want to want to complete the process of equipping the Iraqi army in order to protect our sovereignty.
NORTHAM: The U.S. will close all of its bases in Iraq this month, but leave an enormous diplomatic presence of more than 15,000 people, that includes about 5,000 contractors, mostly for security. Washington had tried to leave several thousand soldiers behind, but decided to pull them all out after Maliki's government refused to grant them legal immunity. NATO announced today that it was withdrawing its troops by the end of the year, for the same reason.
Maliki says Iraq's security forces can handle internal threats. But it's regional security that is causing Bagdad and Washington the most concern, that neighboring Iran may try to assert its influence on Iraq in the wake of the American withdrawal. President Obama today said Maliki has shown that he will put Iraq's interests ahead of anything else.
OBAMA: He has shown himself to be willing to make very tough decisions in the interests of Iraqi nationalism, even if they cause problems with his neighbor.
NORTHAM: Still, as the clock ticks down on the U.S. withdrawal, there are ongoing talks about how the two countries can continue security cooperation without appearing to upset Iraq's sovereignty. Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says it's not clear how that new security relationship will look.
MICHAEL O'HANLON: We're going to have to figure out with the Iraqis what kind of ongoing training presence they might want, that, you know, goes beyond some of the current capabilities because we might not be yet be able to provide them as much as they need. We're going to have to figure out with them if they want us to provide any over-the-horizon air power cover and what that might imply in terms of more liaison officers on the ground.
NORTHAM: There has been talk of training Iraqi soldiers outside of the country. Mr. Obama said the U.S. would train Iraqi pilots to fly F-16 fighter jets that Baghdad purchased earlier this year. And he said there may be occasion for joint exercises and counter-terrorism operations. President Obama said that's no different than Washington's relationship with many other countries. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.