BAGHDAD — Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki will meet President Barack Obama in Washington on Wednesday wearing several robes: the popular leader of an American ally, the prime minister of an increasingly independent-minded country, a follower of the same branch of Islam that's practiced in Iran and a political candidate.
The man who'd been the default compromise for Iraq's top post in 2006 has emerged as the strongest officeholder since Saddam Hussein.
He's tamed sectarian and other violence to its lowest level since the U.S.-led invasion six years ago. He's politely but firmly refused U.S. offers to help resolve a stalemate in his parliament. In handling security issues, he's told the American military, in effect: Don't call us; we'll call you.
In short, the onetime student of Arabic literature and 24-year exile from his own country — under a death sentence from Saddam's regime — arrives in America on a roll.
"Maliki's appeal has been growing among a public that is fed up with chaos, random violence, uncertainty, lack of public services and sectarian politics," said Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group.
However, the prime minister greets Obama as a man holding fire in his hands, according to an Arabic expression. Three wars and more than a decade of sanctions have left his people poor and desperate. Many of the best and brightest have fled. Among those who are left, corruption has become part of daily life, with a bribe the cost of doing business, even to get a job as a taxi driver.
In 2006-07 Iraqis waged a civil war in Baghdad and other cities. They stepped to the brink of a full-fledged bloodbath and breakup. With massive military help from American forces, especially air power and intelligence, Maliki was able to pull his country back from the edge.
Last year, the Shiite Muslim prime minister deployed the Iraqi army to several Shiite cities to impose order. Then he did the same in several Sunni Muslim-dominated areas. When he became prime minister, he told a news conference, "We will work as one family to lead the political process, not based on our differences, sects or parties."
Shiites and Sunnis, along with Kurds, Turkomen, Assyrians, Christians and other minorities, began to view Maliki as an Iraqi nationalist. He seemed to rise above narrow identity politics.
"He shattered sectarianism," said Ez al Denn al Dawla, a Sunni member of parliament.
Maliki took a firm line last year in long negotiations with Washington over a new security agreement. As part of it, the U.S. withdrew its combat forces from major Iraqi cities to perimeter bases on June 30.
Last week, the Iraqi army and federal police successfully soloed in their first big security test without American control. Millions of Shiites flocked to a sacred shrine in northwest Baghdad, the site of three murderous bombings earlier this year. There was only one death and several dozen injuries tied to insurgent violence over the three-day pilgrimage.
The Iraqis asked American forces for intelligence reports — and 60 pallets of bottled water.
The prime minister and every Iraqi know that the calm is fragile, however. One suicide bombing of a mosque, as happened at Samarra in 2006, could reignite the sectarian killing. Kurdistan in northern Iraq wants self-rule or even secession, and already — without central government approval — has started exporting oil.
The parliament is mired in partisan mud-slinging, which has prevented the passage of key bills to divide up the petroleum pie, as well as constitutional amendments on the power of the central government versus that of 18 provinces and other thorny problems.
That so-called "political reconciliation" is what Vice President Joe Biden, Obama's special envoy to Iraq, offered to referee during his visit to Iraq early this month. Maliki told Biden thanks, but no thanks, that this was a domestic matter.
Despite his own period of exile in Iran, Maliki has held Tehran at arm's length. The two countries share a 900-mile-long boundary, ancient cross-border religious pilgrimages and trade and a devastating eight-year-long war in the '80s. In Maliki's public negotiations with Tehran, however, he's emphasized Iraq's sovereignty.
"He has tried to prove many times that he works against Iranian influence in Iraq," said Talib Abdul Azeez, a 55-year-old retiree in Basra, in the south of Iraq.
Maliki has gained authority in the face of a powerful next-door neighbor and the country that still has 130,000 troops in Iraq, but he'll be walking a tightrope in Washington. If he goes to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, for example, he may please many Americans whose loved ones have served — and died or been wounded — during six years of war. However, he also could alienate Iraqis, most of whom know someone killed or wounded by the Americans, widely viewed as occupiers.
In the U.S. he'll face "increasing American disinterest in Iraq and a sense that Iraq is ungrateful," said John Nagl, the president of the Center for a New American Security, a nonpartisan research center in Washington.
Obama also will get acquainted with a type he knows well: a political candidate. Maliki is running for re-election next January, and although his prospects look good now, any of a number of problems could derail his candidacy. He's survived one no-confidence vote and is helped by a lack of electable alternatives.
"I think he has become more liked by the people," said Thamir al Jubori, a 23-year-old student in Fallujah. Bahan al Aaraji, a parliamentarian who's aligned with the Sadrist Party, countered: "There is no chance for him to be prime minister, because he has had so many disagreements with parties and blocs."
Whatever his political destiny, the 59-year-old grandson of a revolutionary poet has silenced some of his critics in the International Zone, where the U.S. Embassy sits. After he first became prime minister, some American diplomats accused him of never leaving the sprawling fortress, fearing a coup. In the battle of Basra last year, however, Maliki stood on the front lines, giving orders, as Iraqi army Humvees burned around him.
As many Iraqi men do, Maliki constantly fingers his Islamic misbaha, which some non-Muslims call "worry beads," often made of agate. The man who's meeting the president of the United States on Wednesday may have grown into the job, but his worry beads will be in his pocket, ready for duty.
(Tharp is the executive editor of the Merced (Calif.) Sun-Star. McClatchy special correspondents Mohammed al Dulaimy, Laith Hammoudi and Jenan Hussein in Baghdad and special correspondents throughout Iraq contributed to this report.)
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Read what McClatchy's Iraqi staff has to say at Inside Iraq.