WASHINGTON Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, concerned by his portrayal in U.S. media as an autocratic leader intent on consolidating power, has invited several influential Washington scholars to Baghdad to meet his team next week.
The rare invitation was extended to Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution, Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institution and Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group, Reuters has learned.
"I think it a very smart and constructive step on his part," said Pollack, a former CIA military analyst who served in President Bill Clinton's White House and also authored an influential book backing the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Maliki's opponents have accused the Shi'ite leader of amassing power they fear will restore the dictatorship toppled by the United States when it felled Saddam Hussein.
Iraqi officials said the idea behind inviting the scholars was to put out Baghdad's side of the story and respond to a "deliberate distortion of reality" being promoted by Maliki's opponents.
"He feels that there is an increasing hostile activity against Iraq and the Iraqi government that attempts to give an unfavorable and negative picture about the situation in Iraq," said Ali Al-Mussawi, chief media adviser to the prime minister, responding to an enquiry made to Iraq's embassy in Washington.
President Barack Obama's decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of last year is blamed by critics for a political crisis that erupted as soon as they left and has raised fears the country could tip back into civil war.
Maliki issued an arrest warrant for Iraqi Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, a Sunni, who fled Baghdad and is currently in Turkey. Relations between Baghdad and the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government in the north have also dimmed.
Baghdad's invitation takes place against the backdrop of an effective information campaign being waged against the Maliki government in Washington, particularly by the Kurds, who maintain a separate representative office in the U.S. capital and have longstanding ties to officials here.
"It is important for those interested in Iraqi affairs to see the situation on the ground and to listen to the voice of Iraqi government and average Iraqis, rather than being exposed only to the readings and voices of those who have political agendas," Al-Mussawi said.
He did not spell out who he meant but cited unnamed regional powers interested in seeing a weakened Iraq.
Baghdad is waging a bitter war of words with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who has accused Maliki of sidelining Sunni opponents while warning of mounting Sunni-Shi'ite tension.
Erdogan has recently hosted Kurdish Regional Government President Masoud Barzani, as well as Ayad Allawi, Maliki's rival and leader of the Sunni Iraqiya bloc.
Danielle Pletka, an advisor to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1992 until 2002, said she was looking forward to the Baghdad trip but dismissed the idea that Maliki's recent bad press was purely a result of poor media relations.
"I don't think that that is a publicity problem," said Pletka, who saw a direct link between Obama's decision to pull out the troops to honor a U.S. election campaign pledge and the subsequent measures taken by Baghdad.
"Maliki consolidated power because we pulled the troops out. Let's make that absolutely clear. They should not have pulled the troops out," she said.
(Reporting By Alister Bull; editing by Todd Eastham)