Maliki Dons Mantle of Seasoned Statesman

His visit to the U.S. this week was meant to be a show of statesmanship, much different than when he was in Washington last time.

In July 2006, when he met with former President George W. Bush, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was a dwindling, embattled politician of whom nobody expected much. His very survival was in doubt, perhaps even by the most optimistic observers. However, this time came a confident yet realistic man to boast of his accomplishments.

"The whole world can see our achievements at the democratic level and with regard to pluralism in our country; and the success of elections is a proof that we have succeeded as a democratic state and we are moving forward," Maliki said in an address at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington.

To complete his image of a realistic statesman, he took pains not to appear as someone who has lost touch with reality.

"I do not want to depict a rosy picture and say we don’t have challenges. We still have challenges to face but we are back in the position that we can face these challenges," Maliki declared.

In fact, the thing that would best characterize his visit this time was his constant swinging between realism and a bit of idealism rooted in his ambitions for the future of the country. For some, it gave a sense of contradiction as to what he had to say about Iraq.

He proudly said the security situation was getting so much better that not only was there no need for U.S. troops to be redeployed to Iraqi cities and towns, but that his government was considering the possibility of pulling out Iraqi army units from urban areas and giving security tasks solely to police.

Hoping to project a sense of normalcy in the war-torn country, Maliki tried to promote Iraq as a new destination for business. In Maliki’s Iraq, security is not the sole issue anymore. In his meeting with President Barack Obama on Wednesday deepening cultural, educational and scientific ties were high on the agenda.

But in yet another bounce-back to reality, he said if worse came to worse, Iraq would be willing to have some U.S. forces stay to help with training and supporting Iraqi military beyond the December 2011 deadline set in the security agreement between the two countries.

Obama has pledged to withdraw all U.S. combat forces from Iraq by the end of August 2010. But as a renewed campaign of violence has plagued the country, some are questioning whether Iraqi security forces are fully capable of taking over security tasks after U.S. Troops scheduled withdrawal.

Increasingly worried that security gains in Iraq might be endangered, Obama urged Maliki to work more seriously on the national reconciliation front. But Maliki says he is not going to talk to those opponents who have "Iraqis’ blood" on their hands.

Attempting to take a more independent line in the internal matters from that favored by the U.S., Maliki’s government has reacted furiously to news that the U.S. had talked to some of Maliki’s opponents in Turkey.

It leaves him with a more daunting task in the future: how to make use of U.S. support and yet be independent in his policies.

"For his part, Maliki faces a delicate balancing act… in his relations with the United States – if he is perceived as too close to Washington, he could lose support at home, but he can’t completely distance himself either," wrote Greg Bruno, an expert at the Council on Foreign Relations on Maliki’s relations with the U.S.

But despite any perceived fluctuation, the prime minister demonstrated that he is keen to seek "cooperation" with the U.S. rather than domination by the superpower.

"The fact that he is coming here after the SOFA (security agreement) is to say that Iraq and U.S. should talk as equals and partners now," Mishkat al-Moumin, an Iraq expert at Middle East Institute told IPS. "I think he is trying to manage difficult positions and walk a fine line yet at the same time keep his balance."

Although some believe Maliki’s closed association with the U.S. might affect his popularity at home, Al-Moumin believes Iraqis do not see it that way.

"What the average Iraqi citizen thinks now is that there is relative security and services are better than before… I feel he is truly popular now in Iraq," said al-Moumin who was a minister of environment in Iraq in the post-war interim government of Ayad Allawi.

And Maliki’s willingness to allow a member of his party who is the country’s trade minister to be dismissed by the parliament on charges of corruption matters more to ordinary Iraqis than his relations with the U.S.

The consensus on his record is that despite the many limitations he faces domestically, the Shia Arab prime minister has presented himself as a man of action, someone who has managed to navigate through Iraq’s complex and complicated politics with a good degree of success so far.

While many believe his initial appointment as prime minister by Iraqi parliamentarians was not due to his merits but rather his perceived weakness in 2006, he is now thought of as a "powerful and popular" leader.

He has confronted insurgents and militias firmly, survived deteriorating relationships with those allies who voted him to office, and won astounding victory in the country’s provincial elections earlier this year.

Through a series of divisive yet shrewd tactics he has now created a popular base for himself. He now appears in charge in Baghdad and is craving to obtain more legitimacy through national elections next year in order to push ahead with his designs for the future of the country more forcefully.

He has already spoken of some of what he intends to do if he had more power. He wants to create a stronger centralized government in Baghdad, and restructure the political system to allow Iraq to have a presidential system instead of the current parliamentary system. He complained in his USIP speech that the constant discord inside parliament has put too many limitations on him to do a better job.

But in what Maliki sees as a source of opportunity for better governance in Iraq, many of his domestic rivals see dangerous indications that a new dictator is about to be born.

Amid all the optimism that the prime minister has brought to Washington, there is myriad problems that he has to tend to back home, such as rising ethnic tensions between Arabs and Kurds in the country, unresolved disputes between his government and the regional Kurdish government on the extent of their powers, and the serious challenge of an insurgency that is trying to make a comeback.

Iraq’s parliamentary elections to be held next January will be a true test of whether the majority of Iraqis see in him a man competent enough to run the country for another four years or not.

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Author: Mohammed A. Salih

Mohammed A. Salih writes for Inter Press Service.