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Al-Maliki Honors U.S. Sacrifice in Iraq

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose disparaging comments about U.S. troops have drawn criticism from American officials recently, visited Arlington Cemetery on Thursday and laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns..

Flanked by honor guards from each branch of the armed forces, al-Maliki stood respectfully at attention during a brief ceremony.

After a 19-gun salute, the U.S. Army Band played the national anthems for Iraq and the United States. A single bugler then played Taps.

Al-Maliki left without making public comment, as is common practice at such ceremonies.

The display of gratitude toward the more than 4,300 U.S. troops who have died in the Iraq war was a departure from al-Maliki's recent tone - and a potentially risky political move for him back in Iraq.

Prior to last month's deadline for U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraq's cities, al-Maliki trumpeted the occasion as a "victory" for Iraq over the American "occupiers." He also compared the withdrawal to Iraq's 1920 revolt against British colonial rule. In a speech on June 30, which he dubbed "National Sovereignty Day," he failed to mention the U.S. military's role in helping bring down violence in Iraq.

Ambassador Christopher Hill, the U.S. envoy to Iraq, told USA TODAY last week that al-Maliki's comments have been "at times tough to take."

Al-Maliki, who met President Obama in Washington earlier this week and spoke with Pentagon officials Thursday, has been trying to distance himself from the U.S. presence in Iraq and burnish his image as a nationalist ahead of national elections in January.

Both U.S. officials and Iraqi political allies of al-Maliki in Baghdad said the prime minister's decision to visit Arlington was a genuine gesture.

Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said the visit was not the result of prompting by Americans. "Maliki requested the visit to Arlington Cemetery in order to pay tribute to the servicemembers who died in Iraq," Odierno said in a statement.

Ali al-Allaq, a member of Iraq's parliament and political ally of al-Maliki's, said that some of his comments have been blown out of proportion. He has said that al-Maliki has commended American troops over the years for their sacrifice and noted that the prime minister thanked the U.S. during his Wednesday news conference with Obama.

"All Iraqi people appreciate all that the U.S. has done," Allaq told USA TODAY. "We thank the Americans for all they've done, and now it is time for them to play a different role."

Al-Maliki also understands that he still needs U.S. support, said Ghassan Atiyyah, the executive director for the Iraq Foundation for Development and Democracy, a London-based group. There are still about 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, and their role is critical to training Iraqi troops and maintaining security as al-Maliki deals with unresolved political issues, he said.

"Maliki knows playing the anti-American card has proven in recent Iraqi history to be an effective strategy," Atiyyah said. "(But) without the Americans' involvement, he knows there could be chaos."

He cited several remaining threats to Iraq's security including potential meddling from neighboring Iran and tensions between Kurds and Arabs over disputed territory in northern Iraq.

At a separate event earlier Thursday, al-Maliki said there could be some flexibility to a security agreement signed in December that mandates the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. "If Iraqi forces need more training and support, we will re-examine the agreement at that time, based on our own national needs," he said.

The 2011 deadline was insisted upon by al-Maliki's government in negotiations with President Bush's administration last fall. Obama has said - and repeated again in al-Maliki's presence Wednesday - that the withdrawal date will not be modified.

Madhani reported from Baghdad.

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