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.