In U.S., Iraqi PM Maliki Walks a Fine Line

If it goes as planned during his trip to the United States this week, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki will honor fallen U.S. troops at Arlington Cemetery. But like the trip itself, the ceremony will have different meanings to those viewing, tinged by the internal politics of Iraq, still a volatile, unstable country beset by tensions with the United States.

Maliki, chosen for prime minister in 2006 largely as a compromise candidate too weak to threaten any sect or party, has shown himself to be more formidable than expected. He has waged battles against militias and expedited the execution of Saddam Hussein. He led a victorious list in provincial elections in January. He has also consolidated power in ways that are worrying his opponents and the defenders of democratic civil institutions–bringing Iraqi special forces under his office's command and using government money to co-opt tribal leaders to his side.

Still, a trip to honor the U.S. troops that have fallen in Iraq, even a mission to tighten ties with the United States, is a fraught move for an Iraqi politician. Many Iraqis are glad U.S. forces toppled their dictator but see Americans in personal terms—as the troops who have detained hundreds of thousands in raids while, until recently, allowing chaos in the streets.

When U.S. troops pulled out of Iraqi cities on June 30, Maliki and other Iraqis treated the event like the departure of an occupying arm, to the disappointment of some American onlookers. But the prime minister has also thanked American commanders in the past, and the idea of recognizing the sacrifices of U.S. service members came from him, according to Gen. Ray Odierno, the top commander in Iraq.

In Iraq, the trip is being spun subtly for local consumption. "Iraqi and American blood is mixed now," says parliamentarian and Maliki adviser Haider al-Abadi. "There may have been ups and downs. There have been disagreements about some American military operations. But since 2007, they've been working together. The whole chapter of the occupation we're trying to put behind us."

U.S. officials—who worry that Americans want to pull money and troops from Iraq before the country is stable—would love to see Maliki appeal to the public with a show of gratitude. But most Iraqis would just barely tolerate it at best, resent it at worst. Many are ambivalent. "My feelings toward the Americans are really not clear," said Hamoudi Qassim, a 40-year-old Shiite officer worker. "I believe that if their interests had not been in removing Saddam Hussein, they would not have removed him. I do not think thanking them or not will make any difference. They have their interests regionally and they are following their interests."

The official explanation in Iraq for Maliki's visit is to encourage American investment in the new and improved Iraq—now much less violent but still plenty dangerous. He will probably announce an Iraq investment conference to be held in Washington.

Maliki comes to D.C. bringing the head of Iraq's investment commission. But he also brings his ministers of defense and interior (police forces). They're going because much of the talks will also be about security and the stresses between Maliki's Shiite-led government and the alienated Sunni and Kurdish communities. That's what Americans are most worried about, that Iraqi political friction could lead to widespread fighting again. When asked about the visit yesterday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters that Wednesday's meeting with President Barack Obama would focus on "political engagement" in Iraq.

As Maliki's government bulks up, its rivals are relying more on U.S. help and suspect Maliki is trying to turn back American pressures to compromise. "He has not done anything for [Sunni-Shiite] reconciliation," says Sunni parliamentarian Salih Mutlaq, "and he's trying to take the benefits of the improvement in security, neglecting the American role." Maliki would point out that he has made concessions to Sunnis, though many of the ones he cultivated still have connections to Baathists, who persecuted Shiites for decades. They want more Sunnis suspected of insurgency to be released from prison, and for the removal of the Baath Party ban.

Kurds are perhaps the most anxious. They've been America's closest allies, but their ambitions to expand their northern area of self-rule have been curtailed by Baghdad's growing, U.S.-trained Army. There have been recent tensions between national and Kurdish forces that almost turned to bloodshed. "The political problems are getting deeper," says Kurdish parliamentarian Abdel Khaliq Zangana, who wants the U.S. to rein in Maliki.

With all the pressures, Maliki's payoff may come just from taking the trip at all, regardless of what gets done. Photo-ops with President Obama will show Iran, Syria, and other neighbors that Iraq does not depend on them for survival. It could serve as an advertisement for American investors wondering if they'll be welcome in helping upgrade Iraq's power grid, housing, and agriculture. That might be his biggest incentive for a gesture to America's fallen.