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Why Iraqi request for help fighting Al Qaeda poses dilemma for US

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“We want to work with you against our common enemy,” said Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, speaking Friday in Washington, where he met with Secretary of State John Kerry and other senior US officials in the context of the US-Iraq strategic framework agreement.

Emphasizing that Al Qaeda trains its fire on “both America and Iraq,” Mr. Zebari added, “Nothing will endure that we have built together unless we win the war against terrorism."

Iraq has seen a recent uptick in suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks as radical Islamists shift back and forth across the Syrian border. But July set a new high in violence since the departure of all US troops in 2011, with more than 1,000 Iraqis killed. The latest Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) attacks target mostly Iraqi security forces and Shiite pilgrims – the latter part of an effort to reignite the sectarian war Iraq experienced in the years after the US invasion, according to some Iraq experts.

US officials say the US has a list of crucial national interests in Iraq that makes US-Iraq cooperation a high priority, but few are more important than helping Iraq confront the AQI challenge, they say.

A top priority “is checking the … ascendancy of AQ in Iraq and making sure that the sanctuaries in Iraq that they had back in the 2005, 2006, 2007 time frame cannot be reestablished,” says a senior administration official involved in last week’s bilateral discussions. “And that’s something [upon which] we have an awful lot of work to do,” adds the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity about issues discussed privately with the Iraqis.

Other US priorities for Iraq are a steady increase in oil production, maintaining a unified country, continued compatibility between Iraq’s “strategic orientation” and US interests in the region, and stronger democratic institutions and “democratic orientation,” the official says.

That last priority is one that some critics say is getting short shrift from the US (not to mention the Maliki government) as Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government confronts mounting protests from a Sunni minority that insists it is being marginalized.

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