Weeks before the U.S. pullout, Iraq's prime minister confidently predicts his country will achieve stability and remain independent of its giant neighbour Iran even without an American troop presence.
Nouri al-Maliki also warned on Saturday of civil war in Iran's ally Syria if President Bashar Assad falls, a view that puts him closer to Tehran's position and at odds with Washington. The foreign policy pronouncement indicates that Iraq is emerging from the shadows of American influence in a way unforeseen when U.S.-led forces invaded eight years ago to topple Saddam Hussein.
"The situation in Syria is dangerous," al-Maliki told The Associated Press during an interview at his office in a former Saddam-era palace in Baghdad's Green Zone. "Things should be dealt with appropriately so that the spring in Syria does not turn into a winter."
The Obama administration has been outspoken in its criticism of Assad's bloody crackdown on protests that the UN says has killed more than 4,000 people so far, the bloodiest in a wave of uprisings that have been dubbed the Arab Spring.
'We do not allow Iran to use us against others that Iran has problems with, and we do not allow others to use us against Iran.'— Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki
Iraq has been much more circumspect and abstained from key Arab League votes suspending Syria's membership and imposing sanctions on the country. That has raised concern that Baghdad is succumbing to Iranian pressure to protect Assad's regime. Tehran is Syria's main backer.
Al-Maliki insisted that Iraq will chart its own policies in the future according to national interests, not the dictates of Iran or any other country.
Some U.S. officials have suggested that Iranian influence in Iraq would inevitably grow once American troops depart. Both countries have Shia majorities and are dominated by Shiite political groups. Many Iraqi politicians spent time in exile in Iran under Saddam's repressive regime, and one of al-Maliki's main allies — anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr — is believed to spend most of his time in Iran.
"Iraq is not a follower of any country," al-Maliki said. He pointed out several areas in which Iraq had acted against Iran's desires, including the signing of the security agreement in 2008 that required all U.S. forces to leave Iraq by the end of this year. Iran had been pushing for all American troops to be out of the country even sooner.
"Through our policies, Iraq was not and will not be a follower of another country's policies," he said.
But he also took pains to emphasize that Iraq did want to maintain good relations with Iran as the two countries share extensive cultural, economical and religious ties.
"Clearly, we are no enemy to Iran and we do not accept that some who have problems with Iran would use us as a battlefield. Some want to fight Iran with Iraqi resources as has happened in the past. We do not allow Iran to use us against others that Iran has problems with, and we do not allow others to use us against Iran," he said.
Radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has close ties with Iran. Associated Press file photoThe prime minister defended his country's stance on the current instability roiling neighbouring Syria. The UN's top human rights official said this week that Syria is in a state of civil war and that more than 4,000 people have been killed since March.
Al-Maliki said his government has told the Syrian regime that the age of one party and one sect — the Alawites, a Shiite sect — running the country is over. But he distanced himself from calls for Assad's ouster, warning that could plunge the country into civil war.
Al-Maliki also insisted his forces were ready to take over security following the Dec. 31 departure of all American troops.
"Nothing has changed with the withdrawal of the American forces from Iraq on the security level because basically it has been in our hands," he said.
Al-Maliki said he was grateful to the United States for overthrowing Saddam.
"We appreciate that, no doubt," the prime minister said, adding he was not worried about a resumption of the type of sectarian warfare that pushed his own country to the brink of civil war in the years following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
On the contrary, he said violence would decline because the Americans' departure would remove one of the main reasons for attacks.