Biden Hosts Iraqi Leader After Iran’s Attack on Israel Throws Mideast Into Greater Uncertainty

President Joe Biden, right, meets with Iraq’s Prime Minister Shia al-Sudani in the Oval Office of the White House, Monday, April 15, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden on Monday hosted Iraq’s leader at the White House as his administration worked to prevent an escalation in Mideast hostilities following Iran’s weekend aerial assault on Israel.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani was visiting for talks intended to focus primarily on U.S.-Iraq relations, which had been scheduled well before the Iranian strikes. But Saturday’s drone and missile launches, including some that overflew Iraqi airspace and others that were launched from Iraq by Iran-backed groups, have underscored the delicate relationship between Washington and Baghdad.

The sharp increase in regional tensions over Israel’s war in Gaza and the weekend developments have raised further questions about the viability of the two-decade American military presence in Iraq. However, a U.S. Patriot battery in Irbil, Iraq, did shoot down at least one Iranian ballistic missile, according to American officials, one of dozens of missiles and drones destroyed by U.S. forces alongside Israeli efforts to defeat the attack.

Speaking at the start of the meeting in the Oval Office, Biden reinforced that the U.S. remains “committed to Israel’s security.

“Our partnership is pivotal for our nations, the Middle East and the world,” Biden told al-Sudani, as the Iraqi leader noted the discussion comes at a “sensitive time.”

Israel’s government has pledged to respond to Iran’s largely foiled attack, but U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby declined to say whether the U.S. had been or expects to be briefed on Israeli plans. “We will let the Israelis speak to that,” he told reporters Monday. The U.S. has already ruled out being party to a direct strike on Iran.

“We are not involved in their decision-making process about a potential response,” Kirby added.

In an effort to restrain the Israeli reaction, the U.S. was publicly lauding Israel’s strength in fending off the Iranian attack, suggesting that the defense itself helped assert its military supremacy in the region.

“Israel today is in a far stronger strategic position than it was only a few days ago,” Kirby told reporters, echoing comments made by Biden to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu late Saturday.

“Iran’s vaunted missile program, something it has used to threaten Israel and the region, proved to be far less effective,” Kirby said. “Israel’s defenses, on the other hand, proved even better than many had thought, and Israel’s defense was strengthened by a coalition of countries led by the United States and working together.”

Meeting with Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Muhammad Ali Tamim before Biden’s session with al-Sudani, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. was urging all parties to avoid escalation.

“In the 36 hours since, we have been coordinating a diplomatic response to seek to prevent escalation,” he said. “Strength and wisdom need to be different sides of the same coin.”

Tamim said the Iraqi government was equally concerned.

“The Middle East today is living in exceptional circumstances that have repercussions on our nations, and we hope escalations and tensions in the area will end,” he said.

Complicating matters, Iranian proxies have initiated attacks against U.S. interests throughout the region from inside Iraq. Those ongoing strikes have made U.S.-Iraq discussions about regional stability and future U.S. troop deployments all the more critical.

Monday’s talks were also focusing on economic, trade and energy issues that have become a major priority for Iraq’s government. Biden praised al-Sudani for strengthening Iraq’s economy.

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