President Joe Biden, right, meets with Iraq's Prime Minister Shia...

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. Credit: AP/Alex Brandon

WASHINGTON — 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.

President Joe Biden pauses to respond to a question from...

President Joe Biden pauses to respond to a question from a member of the traveling press as he boards Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Friday, April 12, 2024, enroute to New Castle, Del. Credit: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

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 Benjamin 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.

President Joe Biden pauses to respond to a question from...

President Joe Biden pauses to respond to a question from a member of the traveling press as he boards Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Friday, April 12, 2024, enroute to New Castle, Del. Credit: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

“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.

The Iraqi leader also pressed Biden on working to bring a swift end to the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, now in its seventh month, saying the economic dialog couldn't ignore the humanitarian needs in the region. Biden, for his part, said the U.S. was “committed to a cease-fire that will bring the hostages home and prevent the conflict from spreading.”

The U.S. and Iraq began formal talks in January about ending the coalition created to help the Iraqi government fight the Islamic State, with some 2,000 U.S. troops remaining in the country under an agreement with Baghdad. Iraqi officials have periodically called for a withdrawal of those forces.

The two countries have a delicate relationship due in part to Iran’s considerable sway in Iraq, where a coalition of Iran-backed groups brought al-Sudani to power in October 2022.

The U.S. in recent months has urged Iraq to do more to prevent attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria that have further roiled the Middle East in the aftermath of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel. Iran's weekend attacks on Israel through Iraqi airspace have further underscored U.S. concerns, although al-Sudani had already left Baghdad and was en route to Washington when the drones and missiles were launched.

The U.S. has also sought to apply financial pressure over Baghdad’s relationship with Tehran, restricting Iraq’s access to its own dollars in an effort to stamp out money laundering said to benefit Iran and Syria.

However, the State Department signed off on a possible sale of logistics support, training and related equipment for Iraq’s C-172 and AC/RC-208 aircraft fleet, a deal worth an estimated $140 million.

Most previous Iraqi prime ministers have visited Washington earlier in their tenure. Al-Sudani’s visit was delayed because of tensions between the U.S. and Iran and regional escalation, including the Gaza war and the killing of three U.S. soldiers in Jordan in a drone attack in late January. That was followed by a U.S. strike that killed a leader in the Kataib Hezbollah militia whom Washington accused of planning and participating in attacks on U.S. troops.

Al-Sudani has attempted to maintain a balancing act between Iran and America despite being seen as being close to Tehran and despite several incidents that have put his government in an embarrassing position in relation to Washington.

Early in his term, a U.S. citizen, Stephen Edward Troell, was shot and killed by armed men who accosted him as he pulled up to the street where he lived in Baghdad’s central Karrada district with his family. An Iraqi criminal court convicted five men last August and sentenced them to life in prison in the case, which officials described as a kidnapping gone wrong.

A few months later, Elizabeth Tsurkov, an Israeli-Russian doctoral student at Princeton, was kidnapped while doing research in Iraq. She is believed to be held by Kataib Hezbollah. The senior U.S. official said Tsurkov's case would also be raised during al-Sudani's visit.

Al-Sudani started his term with promises to focus on economic development and fight corruption, but his government has faced economic difficulties, including a discrepancy in the official and market exchange rates between the Iraqi dinar and the U.S. dollar.

The currency issues resulted in part from a U.S. tightening of the dollar supply to Iraq, as part of a crackdown on money laundering and smuggling of funds to Iran. The U.S. has disallowed more than 20 Iraqi banks from dealing in dollars as part of the campaign.

The al-Sudani government recently renewed Iraq’s contract to purchase natural gas from Iran for another five years, which could lead to American displeasure.

The Iraqi prime minister will return to Iraq and meet with the Turkish president following his trip to Washington, which could finally lead to a solution to a long-running dispute over exports of oil from Kurdish areas of Iraq to Turkey. Washington has sought to get the flow of oil to resume.

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