WASHINGTON (AFP) – Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki paid symbolic tribute to US soldiers killed in Iraq, laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Virginia’s Arlington National Cemetery.
As the Iraqi and American national anthems played, Maliki paid his respects Thursday during a military ceremony of the type reserved for heads of state, which was punctuated by the firing of canons.
Maliki was joined by his delegation and Brigadier General Karl Horst, the commander of Joint Force Headquarters-National Capital Region.
The Iraqi leader observed a minute of silence, watched by a crowd of about 200 American tourists who were visiting the site — a national landmark.
He did not make remarks at the ceremony.
According to cemetery officials, Thursday was the third time Maliki has visited the site to pay his respects, but the previous two visits were not open to the public.
An Iraqi official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the trip was “very important to stipulate a new relationship after the withdrawal of the troops.”
US troops pulled out of Iraqi cities at the end of June, as part of a bilateral agreement signed between the two countries.
The transition is a major step in the Iraqi government’s attempts to assert its authority throughout the country, but questions remain about relations between the still-troubled nation’s ethnic and religious sects.
The future of relations between the country’s Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish populations was a topic in talks Maliki held in Washington on Wednesday with President Barack Obama.
Speaking with Maliki by his side at the White House Rose Garden on Wednesday, Obama again insisted that the United States would fulfill its commitment to remove all of its troops from Iraq by 2011.
The White House meeting was the leaders’ first since Obama took office in January. They met in Baghdad in April.
US troops are gradually moving away from the Iraqi theater and moving toward Afghanistan, but some uncertainty remains over Iraq’s ability to handle its own security.
While the level of violence has dropped significantly since the worst days of internecine violence, the United States is still registering fatalities and casualties in Iraq.
The most recent fatality, a Marine lance corporal killed in Iraq’s Anbar province, was reported by the Pentagon on July 20.
Arlington Cemetery is the final resting place for 330,000 military personnel, including 461 soldiers killed in Iraq and 93 killed in Afghanistan.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier represents the bodies of unidentified soldiers from various conflicts in which US troops have fought, including the two world wars, the Korean war and the Vietnam war.
Around 4,327 US soldiers have been killed since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.