WASHINGTON // Nouri al Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, meets the American president Barack Obama today in a visit aimed at asserting Iraq's new-found sovereignty and encouraging foreign investors to return to the war-ravaged country. Three weeks after US troops withdrew from Iraqi towns and cities, paving the way for a full withdrawal by the end of 2011, both Washington and Baghdad are eager to show their relationship has moved into a new phase, one that will see more emphasis placed on non-military co-operation.
Mr Maliki will also hold talks with the treasury secretary Timothy Geithner and attend an investment conference, US officials said. "The visit will highlight the non-security ties and lay the groundwork for future economic co-operation and trade," one official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Mr Maliki's Shiite Muslim-led government is aggressively courting foreign investors as it struggles to resurrect an economy calcified by decades of sanctions, neglect and war.
During his trip to the United States this week, Mr Maliki will tout Iraq's improved security after six years of conflict that saw tens of thousands of people killed in insurgent and sectarian violence and millions more forced from their homes. More than 4,300 American soldiers have died in Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003 that toppled Saddam Hussein. There are still 130,000 US troops in the country.
But investors remain unsure whether Iraq's legal and regulatory framework will offer them sufficient protection, and while violence has dipped sharply, major bomb attacks are not uncommon. Iraq is also riven by deep divisions among majority Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds. The Obama administration remains concerned about the pace of political reconciliation in Iraq but, unlike the Bush administration, there are no plans to set political benchmarks for Mr Maliki's government to meet.
"We are not going to be dictating to the Iraqis what they need to do," the US official said. "The main focus will be to stress the importance of a comprehensive long-term partnership that goes beyond security." The official said he did not know whether Mr Obama planned to raise the issue of political reconciliation at his White House meeting with Mr Maliki. Both Mr Obama and his vice president, Joe Biden, have used trips to Iraq this year to call on the government there to reach a political accommodation with opponents on disputes ranging from sharing oil revenues to resolving internal boundary issues.
There are also concerns over growing tensions between Iraq's semiautonomous territory of Kurdistan and Baghdad that analysts fear could trigger renewed conflict just as the country recovers from years of sectarian bloodletting. Kurds want to fold the disputed city of Kirkuk, which US officials say could hold as much as 4 per cent of world oil reserves, into their northern region, but Mr Maliki's government strongly opposes the move.
"Maliki will ask the US to increase pressure on the Kurdish government. Finding a solution for this issue is vital and cannot be postponed any longer," said Saad al Hadithi, a political analyst at Baghdad University. Mr Maliki, whose nationalist stance has helped him outmanoeuvre political rivals, is also determined to change the perception that Iraq is a client state of the United States and not in control of its own affairs.
"This trip is considered very important because it takes place in the search for a framework for a relationship that is not military but civilian, including diplomatic, political and cultural ties," said Mr Maliki's spokesman, Ali al Dabbagh. Mr Dabbagh said Mr Maliki in meetings with Mr Obama and the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon would also press for the lifting of Iraq's Chapter 7 status under a 1991 UN Security Council resolution that requires it to pay 5 per cent of its oil revenues as war reparations for the 1991 Gulf War.
Mr Dabbagh said the Chapter 7 status had "handcuffed Iraq, restricted its sovereignty and burdened it with the crimes of the former regime", a reference to Saddam and his ill-fated invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Saddam was executed in 2006. * Reuters