* Maliki seeking arms, regional role in Washington talks
* First visit since Dec. 2011, when U.S. troops withdrew
* Surge in violence a concern, Maliki links it to Syria
* Iraqi leader seeks mediating role with Iran, sources say
By Ahmed Rasheed
BAGHDAD, Oct 29 (Reuters) - Iraqi Prime Minister Nurial-Maliki flew to Washington on Tuesday, seeking urgent militarysupplies to fight an upsurge in sectarian violence spilling overthe Syrian border.
He will also present himself to President Barack Obama as apotential mediator for him with Iran and Tehran's Syrian ally,Bashar al-Assad, Iraqi sources said - though U.S. officialsplayed down the prospect of Maliki playing such a role.
Two years after his last visit, as U.S. troops were leavingIraq, Iraq is suffering bombings on a scale not seen since thebloody sectarian chaos of 2006-08. Seeking a third term nextyear, he also seems to be looking to the shifting diplomaticgeometry in the Middle East to help entrench his position.
Speaking at Baghdad airport before flying out for three daysof talks in Washington that will culminate at the White House onFriday, Maliki said it was "urgent" that Iraq receive "offensiveweapons to combat terrorism and hunt armed groups".
He stressed a need for helicopters and other equipment.Aides have also cited drones as useful for patrolling a borderacross which the Shi'ite-led government says al Qaeda and otherSunni groups fighting President Assad in Syria are bringing inmen and arms that have killed more than 7,000 Iraqis this year.
"We will discuss security and intelligence in addition toarms needed by the military to fight terrorism," said Maliki,who will meet Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday and DefenseSecretary Chuck Hagel with senior U.S. generals on Thursday.
He cited the threat from Syria was high on his agenda anddistanced himself from comments by aides who called for fasterdelivery of F-16 jets, due to arrive in about a year. Suchaircraft were not a priority to counter militants, he said.
Maliki's Shi'ite-led government says al Qaeda is bent onsecuring territory in Iraq, where minority Sunni Muslims are themain community in the desert next to Syria, and wants todestabilise Baghdad to further its goal of ousting Assad.
However, many Iraqi Sunnis, long dominant until U.S. forcesousted Saddam Hussein in 2003, accuse Maliki of using al Qaedaviolence to justify excluding their community from power.
The United States, which fostered the electoral system thatput Maliki in office in 2006 at the head of a Shi'ite coalition,has watched with dismay as he has ignored its calls to buildconsensus and has moved closer to Shi'ite Tehran.
The prime minister, who faced sharp U.S. criticism in Marchfor letting Iran fly weapons and fighters over Iraq to helpAssad in Syria, may seek to turn his pivotal position in theregion to advantage as the fallout from the Arab uprisings of2011 and Iran's nuclear programme shakes up U.S. strategy.
Maliki made no direct mention of his potential to act as ago-between but several Iraqi officials and politicians toldReuters that he would be discussing that issue in Washington.
"Maliki's message to the Americans is that Iraq is the bestbroker between Tehran and the West to resolve the nuclearissue," a member of Maliki's State of Law coalition said.
A senior Shi'ite official close to Maliki said: "Everythingwill be in one basket: Iraq, Iran and Syria."
With the Middle East increasingly divided between a Sunnibloc dominated by Saudi Arabia and Shi'ites looking to non-ArabIran, Maliki could play a central role - as a Shi'ite Arableader of a large and central state, who lived for many years inexile in Iran and Syria and has close ties in Washington.
A Shi'ite Iraqi former minister said U.S. officials also sawa closer alliance with Iraq as a possible offset to theestrangement between the United States and Saudi Arabia, whichhas been angered by Obama's willingness to talk to Iran's newPresident Hassan Rouhani and his failure to attack Assad.
"America wants Iraq to play a role in solving the Syriancrisis," the former minister said. "The U.S. sees Iraq as apotential balancing point in the Iranian-Saudi conflict."
However, U.S. officials, asked about such statements, saidthey saw little need for mediation with Iran. One noted thatObama spoke to Rouhani a month ago in the highest-levelbilateral contact since 1979 and saw positive developments fromthe latest nuclear discussions between Tehran and U.N. powers.
"I don't think there is going to be any major pitch," theofficial said. "It certainly is not going to be the centrepieceof the visit."
Ramzy Mardini at the Iraq Institute for Strategic Studiessaid Maliki may be promoting himself as a regional player toconsolidate his domestic support before an election in April.
"Maliki's road to re-election runs through Washington andTehran," Mardini said. "There's great political interest to makehimself important to both sides, whether the focus is Iran'snuclear programme or negotiating a political settlement inSyria. Maliki wants a regional diplomatic role because it mostlikely assures his third term as prime minister."
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