(Reuters) - President Barack Obama welcomed Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to the White House on Monday, showcasing the end of the American war in Iraq as he campaigns for reelection next year.
Sitting side by side in the Oval Office, the two leaders posed briefly for cameras but did not make statements. They will hold a news conference together later in the morning.
Fulfilling a pledge to Americans weary of the nearly nine year old war, Obama is pulling nearly all U.S. troops out of Iraq by December 31, after a deal to keep thousands of trainers on the ground fell apart over the issue of immunity.
This has fanned concern about a power vacuum in the country that could be exploited by neighboring Iran, which has sought to exert influence over Iraq's majority fellow Shi'ites since the United States toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Almost 4,500 U.S. troops have died since President George W. Bush ordered the invasion in 2003, based on claims of weapons of mass destruction and al Qaeda ties that turned out not to exist.
Maliki will accompany the president and First Lady Michelle Obama to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where Obama will thank troops returning home from Iraq, keeping the spotlight on national security although U.S. voters say their main concern is the economy.
Alongside the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in May, the closure of the Iraq war and drawdown of troops from Afghanistan are seen by the White House as key Obama accomplishments that he can flourish before voters in the elections in November next year. From a peak above 170,000 troops in the 2007 surge, 6,000 remained as of Sunday and nearly all will be gone year-end.