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Obama, al-Maliki discuss fighting al Qaeda

Two years after U.S. troops left Iraq, al Qaeda's presence there is growing, President Obama acknowledged Friday after a White House meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

During the meeting, which Vice President Joe Biden also attended, the leaders discussed a range of issues, including economic, regional and security issues, Mr. Obama said. However, they primarily focused on how the two nations can push back against the terrorist group.

"Much of our discussion centered on the fact that although Iraq's made significant progress in areas like oil production and a range of other reforms that have taken place, unfortunately al Qaeda has been active and has grown more active recently," Mr. Obama said. Countering al Qaeda there, he said, is important "not only to Iraq but also to the entire region and the United States."

Al-Maliki called Friday's meeting "a very positive, very deep and very strategic dialogue."

The prime minister is asking Mr. Obama to step up U.S. assistance to Iraq to curb the nation's violent insurgency.

In a speech at the U.S. Institute of Peace Friday morning, al-Maliki said terrorists have "found a second chance" in Iraq since U.S. troops left two years ago and a violent war broke out in neighboring Syria.

Iraqi ambassador to the U.S. Lukman Faily said earlier that al-Maliki could specifically ask Mr. Obama to speed up the delivery of weapons. Faily did not rule out the possibility that al-Maliki would ask for the U.S. to send military special forces to Iraq to assist counter-terrorism troops, but White House spokesman Jay Carney on Friday ruled out sending troops there.

"We made clear, we withdrew from Iraq, and we think that we can continue to provide assistance to Iraq in its effort against al Qaeda, short of boots on the ground, through our foreign military sales and through other means," Carney said.

Mr. Obama said after the White House meeting that "the strategic partnership between our two countries remains very strong."

He added, "We honor the lives that were lost, both American and Iraqi, to bring about a functioning democracy in a country that previously had been ruled by a vicious dictator."

Mr. Obama said his administration has been "encouraged" by the work al-Maliki has done "to ensure that all people inside of Iraq -- Sunni, Shia and Kurd -- feel that they have a voice in their government... so people understand that when they have differences they can express them politically as opposed to through violence."

One of the most important expressions of that, he said, will be elections next year.

Mr. Obama said that he and al-Maliki also spent a "considerable amount of time talking about Syria, where the spillover effects of the chaos and Assad's horrific treatment of his own people has had spillover effects in Iraq as well."

He said it's in the interest of both the United States and Iraq to "try to bring about a political settlement" in Syria.