Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki headed to Washington on Sunday, for the first time as leader of a country virtually empty of foreign troops as the US withdrawal from Iraq nears its final days.
Maliki is to hold wide-ranging talks with US President Barack Obama during his two-day visit, which comes less than a month before the complete withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and more than eight years after the launch of the US-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein.
"This will be the first visit where he is going as the chief of a country empty of foreign troops that can count totally on itself," Ali Mussawi, media advisor to Maliki, told AFP.
"We will discuss all the fields of collaboration ... and open a new phase of relations between Baghdad and Washington, which used to be dominated by military affairs."
Maliki was accompanied by Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, Culture Minister and acting Defence Minister Saadun al-Dulaimi, Transport Minister Khayrullah Hassan Babakir, Trade Minister Hadi al-Ameri, and National Security Adviser Falah al-Fayadh.
Also on the trip are National Investment Commission chief Sami al-Araji and Maliki's chief adviser and former oil minister Thamer al-Ghadban.
The Iraqi premier is to hold talks with Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and US lawmakers on issues including security, energy, education and justice.
Obama will mark the final withdrawal of all US troops from Iraq by addressing returning soldiers on Wednesday at a base in North Carolina. It was not immediately clear if Maliki would attend the speech.
"The two leaders will hold talks on the removal of US military forces from Iraq, and our efforts to start a new chapter in the comprehensive strategic partnership between the United States and Iraq," said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
"The president honours the sacrifices and achievements of all those who have served in Iraq, and of the Iraqi people, to reach this moment full of promise for an enduring US-Iraq friendship, as we end America's war in Iraq."
Baghdad and Washington are expected to maintain close ties after the military withdrawal, when the focus will shift to the work of the 16,000-strong US mission in Iraq.
The US-Iraq relationship, "long defined by the imperative of security alone, is now giving way to a new, more normal partnership between sovereign nations seeking to build a future together," US Vice President Joe Biden said on a visit to Iraq this month.
Around 6,000 US military personnel remain in Iraq on four bases, down from peaks of nearly 170,000 troops on 505 bases in 2007 and 2008. All the troops must leave by the end of the month.
They leave behind an Iraqi security force with more than 900,000 troops, which US and Iraqi officials assess is capable of maintaining internal security but cannot defend the country's borders, airspace or maritime territory.
The US will maintain 157 uniformed soldiers and up to 763 civilian contractors who help train Iraqi forces under the authority of the sprawling US embassy in Baghdad.
Sunday's trip marks Maliki's third visit to the US as Iraq's premier.
He first visited in July 2006, when Iraq was in the midst of a sectarian bloodbath that left tens of thousands dead, and then in July 2009, shortly after American forces withdrew from Iraq's urban centres.
Violence has declined markedly from its peak, but remains common -- 187 people were killed in attacks in November, and several major bombings have also been carried out this month.
by Ammar Karim
(c) 2011 AFP