By David Alexander

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said on Thursday he was seeking U.S. help to counter a resurgent al Qaeda in his country and blamed the revival of the extremist group on power vacuums in the region rather than divisive Iraqi policies.

On his first visit to Washington in two years, Maliki met with U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Army General Martin Dempsey before speaking at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He is due to meet President Barack Obama on Friday.

Speaking to an audience of about 200, Maliki highlighted the extremist violence in his country while stressing U.S.-Iraqi relations and the suffering as a result of violence following the 2003 war to topple Saddam Hussein.

"We were partners and we shed blood together fighting terrorism," Maliki said through a translator, adding "this allowed us to win over terrorism in Iraq." The problem has now returned, he said.

Many U.S. officials disagree with Maliki's view on the causes of the violence in Iraq and have watched in dismay as he and his government have moved closer to Iran, while ignoring Washington's call to give Sunni and Kurdish minorities a greater role in the Shi'ite-led government.

Fielding questions, Maliki said that everything he had done in office had followed the Iraqi constitution and that the Iraqi leadership shared a common view of the future, regardless of whether they were Sunni, Shi'ite or Kurds.

"We have a common ground, we have a common vision based on the constitution that we built," Maliki said. "But if you want to ask me why do we have problems, I would say, 'Of course, democracy ... needs lots of time, needs solutions.'"

Lawmakers in the U.S. Congress sent a letter to Obama, on Thursday taking a hard line against Maliki and blaming his government's actions for the violence.

Maliki blamed the resurgence of al Qaeda in Iraq on the Arab Spring revolutions that toppled longstanding dictatorships, but, he said, "were not able to fill the void in the right way."

"A vacuum was created and al Qaeda and other groups were able to exploit it and to gain ground," he said. "They benefited from the fall of the state structure, so now we are seeing the new reality ... that allowed terrorism to be back."

Maliki is urgently seeking Apache attack helicopters and other U.S. military equipment to fight al Qaeda militants as sectarian violence spills over the border from Syria.

"We are talking with the Americans and we are telling them that we need to benefit from their experience, from the intelligence information and from training," Maliki said.

White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters he expected Obama to discuss Iraq's military needs with Maliki at their meeting on Friday. He said there was "no question" Obama would raise his concerns about the violence in Iraq and "the need to take steps, peaceful steps, to reduce that violence."

Asked whether Obama would push to overcome congressional resistance to military aid for Iraq, Carney said, "We believe that continued assistance (to Iraq) is necessary, and denying that assistance would be contrary to our interests."

(Additional reporting Steve Holland and Patricia Zengerle. Editing by Warren Strobel and Christopher Wilson)

 

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