Middle East Online WASHINGTON: US President Barack Obama and Iraqi leader Nuri al-Maliki Friday discussed how to "push back" against Al-Qaeda after the resurgent group whipped up the deadliest surge of violence in the country in five years.
Obama welcomed Maliki to the Oval Office nearly two years after the last soldier left Iraq, but as fears mount that Al-Qaeda will send the country spiraling back into civil war.
"We had a lot of discussion about how we can work together to push back against that terrorist organization that operates not only in Iraq but also poses a threat to the entire region and to the United States," Obama said.
But he did not offer specifics of US aid. Before the visit, US officials privately hinted that they were willing to offer increased intelligence help to Iraqi forces battling extremist fighters -- many of whom have crossed into the country to flee violence that is rending neighboring Syria.
Amid some criticism that the United States left Iraq to fend for itself after an eight year occupation, Obama said that he appreciated Maliki's work to honor the sacrifice of 4,500 US troops that were killed in the war by building a "prosperous, inclusive and democratic Iraq."
Some Maliki critics in Washington feel the prime minister has not done enough to include all of Iraq's minorities in the political system and has therefore fostered a well of sectarian resentment that has offered an opening for extremists.
After an hour and a half of talks, Obama also encouraged Maliki to pass an election law so national polls can take place on time early next year, and stressed the need for a peaceful solution to the Syria conflict and the nuclear showdown with Iran.
Maliki said he hoped that the United States would help rebuild Iraq and stressed his government's commitment to a strategic agreement governing their relations following the US withdrawal.
He admitted that democracy in Iraq is "fragile" but committed to hold elections on time next year.
October was Iraq's deadliest month since April 2008, with 964 killed and another 1,600 wounded, according to data from the Iraqi ministries of health, interior and defense.
The vast majority of those killed were civilians.
Maliki has a wish list of US military hardware, including attack helicopters to go with already ordered fighter jets to help his ill-equipped military battle insurgents.
But he did not say whether Washington had agreed to his requests.
In a joint statement issued after the talks, both sides agreed on the need "for additional equipment for Iraqi forces to conduct ongoing operations in remote areas where terrorist camps are located."
The statement also noted that both delegation is backed the need for "aggressive political outreach" to isolate and defeat The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, an Al-Qaeda front group.
That vow could hint at a new Iraqi effort to engage Sunni tribes in a bid to convince them to turn against Al-Qaeda, as they did under the US troop surge strategy in the latter years of the occupation.
Before the talks, hundreds of anti-Maliki demonstrators massed outside the White House, denouncing the Iraqi government over the murder of 52 Iranian exiles in Camp Ashraf in Iraq on September 2.
Iraqi authorities blame infighting in the group for the deaths. But the People's Mujahedeen Organization of Iran said troops entered the camp and set fire to property and opened fire on those inside.
More than 3,000 former residents of Camp Ashraf are now staying in a former US base at Camp Liberty outside Baghdad, awaiting settlement overseas.
High profile supporters of the group, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former US Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge spoke at the rally.
"Maliki has sold out the soul of his own nation in an unholy alliance with the mullahs of Iran," said former senator Robert Torricelli, another US supporter of the group.
The idea that Obama "ended" the Iraq war -- which he once branded "dumb" and built a political career on opposing -- underpinned his re-election campaign last year.
But when US troops left, the war went on.
Obama's critics accuse the president of throwing away hard-won gains by leaving Iraq prematurely and some also round on Maliki accusing him of opening sectarian divisions.
Senior US officials do believe some progress has been made, approving of Maliki's recent visit to Anbar province and pointing to scheduled national elections in Iraq early next year.