U.S. Visit A Balancing Act For Iraq's Maliki

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki i i

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, shown here in Karbala in May, visits the Obama White House for the first time Wednesday. Mohammed Sawaf/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mohammed Sawaf/AFP/Getty Images
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, shown here in Karbala in May, visits the Obama White House for the first time Wednesday.

Mohammed Sawaf/AFP/Getty Images

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki makes his first visit to the Obama White House on Wednesday, after a visit early in the day at the United Nations.

The Iraqi premier's confidence has been boosted by relative calm during the three weeks since U.S. combat troops left Iraq's cities. But with the election season under way in Iraq, Maliki will be keeping an eye on domestic politics there while he's in the United States.

Maliki's visit comes on the heels of what the Iraqi government is calling a big achievement. A Shiite festival last weekend that drew more than 6 million pilgrims to Baghdad came off without major violence, says Qassam Attah, a Baghdad security spokesman. In the past, holidays like it had all but guaranteed car bombs and suicide attacks.

Attah credited Maliki with uniting Iraq's people behind the security forces. He hardly mentioned the main point — that it was done without American troops.

Conspiracy Theories

That's the most important aspect for Azeez Gummar, who was out cleaning up the streets after the millions of pilgrims left Baghdad early this week.

"The Americans thought there would be trouble when they left," says Gummar, "but nothing went wrong."

Gummar goes a bit further: He believes previous festivals were violent because the Americans were planting the bombs.

Such conspiracy theories abound in Baghdad, and Maliki can't afford to ignore them. With January's election looming, he has to strike just the right tone in Washington, says Mahmoud Othman, an independent member of the Iraqi parliament.

"Of course, in the next elections, he's keen not to be seen as a pro-American because he will lose votes," Othman says.

Maliki is caught between all of the region's competing influences, Othman says. Many Iraqis believe the Obama administration is aligned with the Sunni Arab Gulf states against Shiite Iran. At the same time, politicians know that it's not popular to appear too close to Tehran.

Maliki is walking a tightrope, Othman says. "Maliki has to give a sort of a balanced position, neither too much pro-Iran nor pro-America. He's in between, you know. It's a difficult balance to keep, but he's tried to keep it."

A Transition

At the same time, Maliki is counting on strong U.S. support when goes to the United Nations. Under Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter, Iraq has been required to pay a percentage of its oil revenue to Kuwait as reparations for the 1990 invasion. Kuwait maintains that Iraq must pay an additional $25 billion.

Maliki will push for a reduction or elimination of the debt, says Ali al-Dabbagh, the prime minister's spokesman.

Dabbagh says Maliki is hoping to use his visit to mark a transition in the Iraqi-American relationship.

"The commitment is the same, but now the role is being changed. Now it is changed from the military role to the development," he says.

Even at the White House, Maliki may be sparing in his words of thanks for the U.S. efforts in Iraq, but he is planning a powerful gesture: The Iraqi prime minister will visit Arlington National Cemetery, the final resting place of some of the 4,332 U.S. soldiers who have died in Iraq.

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