By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was due to meet with members of Congress on Wednesday as he seeks increased military aid to fight sectarian violence amid criticism from U.S. lawmakers that his government has contributed to the divisions.
As he traveled to Washington on Tuesday, six influential U.S. senators took a hard line against Maliki in a letter to President Barack Obama.
"By nearly every indicator, security conditions in Iraq have dramatically worsened over the past two years. Al Qaeda in Iraq has returned with a vengeance," wrote Democrats Carl Levin and Robert Menendez and Republicans John McCain, James Inhofe, Bob Corker and Lindsey Graham.
The letter urged Obama to press Maliki to formulate a strategy to stabilize the country, citing U.N. estimates that more than 7,000 civilians have been killed in Iraq this year.
"Unfortunately, Prime Minister Maliki's mismanagement of Iraqi politics is contributing to the recent surge of violence," the letter said.
Maliki is urgently seeking military supplies to fight an upsurge in sectarian violence spilling over the Syrian border. He also was expected to present himself to Obama as a potential mediator with Iran and its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
During his first visit in two years, Maliki was due to meet with members of Congress including Menendez and Corker, the leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He was scheduled to meet with Obama on Friday.
U.S. officials, particularly in Congress, which takes a harder line on many foreign policy issues than the Obama administration, have watched in dismay as Maliki ignored its calls to build consensus and moved closer to Iran.
Maliki "too often" pursues a sectarian and authoritarian agenda, the senators wrote, strengthening al Qaeda in Iraqi and fueling violence between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims.
The letter noted reports that Tehran uses Iraqi airspace to send military assistance to Assad in a civil war that has killed more than 115,000 civilians.
"We urge you to make clear to Prime Minister Maliki that the extent of Iran's malign influence in the Iraqi government is a serious problem in our bilateral relationship, especially for the Congress," the letter said.
If Maliki adopts a new strategy for Iraq to address governance issues and unite Iraqis of all sects and ethnicities, the United States would be ready to provide support to help that strategy succeed, the senators wrote.
"(This) requires a clear commitment that the elections scheduled for next year will happen freely, fairly, and inclusively in all parts of Iraq, and that the necessary preparations will be taken," they said.
(Editing by Doina Chiacu)