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

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

Iraq

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

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is traveling to the United Nations and, for the first time tomorrow, to the Obama White House. Maliki's confidence has been boosted by relatively good security during the three weeks since U.S. combat troops left Iraq's cities.

NPR's Quil Lawrence reports.

QUIL LAWRENCE: Maliki's visit to the White House comes on the heels of what the Iraqi government is calling a big achievement, the Shiite festival last weekend that saw over six million pilgrims converge on Baghdad. In the past, holidays like this all but guaranteed car bombs and suicide attacks. This year came off without major violence, according to Qassim Atta, a Baghdad security spokesman.

Mr. QASSIM ATTA (Baghdad Security Spokesman): (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: Atta credited Prime Minister Maliki with uniting Iraq's people behind the security forces. He hardly mentioned the main point that this was done without American troops. That's the most important point for Azeez Gummar(ph), who was out cleaning up the streets after the millions of pilgrims left Baghdad early this week.

Mr. AZEEZ GUMMAR: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: 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. These conspiracy theories abound in Baghdad, but Maliki can't afford to ignore them. It's already election season in Iraq, and he has to strike just the right tone in Washington, says Mahmoud Othman, an independent member of Iraqi parliament.

Mr. MAHMOUD OTHMAN (Member, Iraqi Parliament): Of course, in the next elections, he's keen not to be seen as a pro-American because he will lose votes. So...

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

Prime Minister Maliki is walking a tightrope, says Othman.

Mr. OTHMAN: 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 trying to keep it.

LAWRENCE: At the same time, Maliki is counting on strong U.S. support when he 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.

Mr. ALI AL-DABBAGH (Spokesman for the Prime Minister): The issue of the Chapter 7, which is the most critical issue which we do need and the - its related resolutions.

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

Mr. AL-DABBAGH: The commitment is the same, but now, it's - the role is being changed. Now, it is changed from the military role to the development.

LAWRENCE: 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.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Baghdad.

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