BAGHDAD — It's a gesture that couldn't have been made while U.S. forces were breaking down the doors of Iraqi homes and detaining residents by the thousands. Or when civilians were being killed by frightened American soldiers in sometimes careless shootings that have claimed an untold number of Iraqi lives.
But U.S. troops have now departed almost completely from the streets of Iraq's cities, and Prime Minister Nouri Maliki plans to visit the graves of American soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery during a trip to Washington this week and to offer a personal "thank you" to the men and women who gave their lives for the sake of a new Iraq.
It's a risky political move for a man who is facing a national election early next year. Maliki has been busily reinventing himself as an Iraqi nationalist in an effort to broaden his appeal beyond his Shiite Muslim constituency, and just three weeks ago, to the chagrin of U.S. officials, he was trumpeting the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq's cities as a "victory" for his government over the "occupiers."
With U.S. troops now confined to bases in the countryside and on track to leave altogether by the end of 2011, Maliki feels it is appropriate to make a public statement of appreciation to the American people, Iraqi officials say.
There's more than gratitude behind the gesture. The Iraqi government is deeply mindful of Washington's waning interest in Iraq as President Obama shifts personnel and resources to the war in Afghanistan. Even as Maliki seeks to portray himself as the leader who rid Iraq of American forces by negotiating an exit timetable with the Bush administration, he is keen to ensure that the U.S. does not entirely forget the investments of billions of dollars and more than 4,000 lives it has made in Iraq.
Iraqis were particularly concerned by some of the anti-Iraq war rhetoric that emerged during Obama's election campaign, and Maliki wants to tell the new administration that the 2003 U.S.-led invasion was neither a mistake nor a failure, said Shiite legislator Sami Askari, who is close to the prime minister.
"The Democrats were in opposition to George Bush so they tended not to see his positive points, only to concentrate on the negative ones," Askari said. "So I think the prime minister needs to say this: that as a people, we are not ignoring what others did for us. Every Iraqi who goes to Washington needs to make clear that the war was not a failure.
"The problem is he might find it difficult here to say that because that help was clouded by many events, and we still feel the pain," he added. "But also, the situation in Iraq has changed. During the dark period it was very unwise for anyone to go public and say thank you to America. Now they've withdrawn from the cities and things are going well, and it's wise to say it now. I think ordinary people are saying it too, just not publicly."
The Iraqi public remains deeply ambivalent toward the U.S., as the country that freed them from the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, yet then oversaw the collapse of services and the disintegration into sectarian warfare.
Iraq's Kurds, a longtime target of Hussein, unequivocally regard the Americans as liberators and have said they are welcome to remain indefinitely in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. There are others who resolutely regard the American troops as illegal occupiers and find even their reduced presence in the Iraqi countryside intolerable.
"I would like to ask: Thank America for what?" said grocery storekeeper Riad Jaafar, 53, when told of Maliki's plans. "It is true that some people say they ousted Saddam, but now it is clear that things were better under Saddam."
Many Iraqis express a somewhat more benign view of the experiences of the last six years.
"I'm not sure they did anything good for us, but they came many miles and brought a lot of equipment with them, and to anyone who offered you this kind of service, you have to say thank you," said Wissam Wadhi, 42, who owns a toy shop in the much-bombed Baghdad neighborhood of Karada.
"I want the soldiers to go home, but I want American companies to come and reconstruct here. They have a responsibility to do that," he added, expressing a widely held view that the U.S. should play a larger role in rebuilding.
Encouraging investment in Iraq will be one of the top priorities during Maliki's visit to Washington, said Deputy Prime Minister Rafi Issawi, who oversees the delivery of services and reconstruction.
Now that America's military involvement in Iraq is ending, the government wants to lay the groundwork for a new relationship based on economic and technical cooperation, he said.