You’d never know that the prime minister of a nation occupied by 130,000 US troops is in the United States, but he is. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is in Washington to meet President Obama and other US officials today and tomorrow, but the press coverage is weak. And in yesterday’s press briefing by Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, the issue of Iraq didn’t come up at all. Not once.

But it’s a critical visit, and I’ll be updating this entry today and tomorrow as developments warrant. Obama and Maliki are scheduled to appear at a press conference on Wednesday afternoon at the White House, and I’ll comment on that. Tomorrow morning, I’ll be attending a speech by Maliki at the US Institute of Peace, and I’ll report back.

Sadly, the mainstream media seems to be buying into the idea that Maliki has suddenly transformed himself into an ardent Iraqi nationalist. Don’t be fooled. If anything, Maliki has conducted a power grab in Baghdad, arrogating to himself increasingly broad powers that have led many Iraqis to view him as a dictator-in-the-making. But he is still the head of the secretive Al Dawa party, an Islamist political formation that has long had ties to neighboring Iran. It’s true that Maliki has noticed that the political winds in Iraq have shifted from sectarianism and religious identity to a more nationalist orientation. As I reported extensively in The Nation, the January 2009 provincial elections gravely weakened the most extreme manifestations of the sectarian/religious movement in Iraq, including the Iran-backed Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the fundamentalist Sunni, Muslim Brotherhood-led Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP). To accommodate that trend, Maliki has increasingly tried to portray himself as a nationalist, but there’s no evidence that he’s changed his sectarian spots.

Certainly, the turmoil in Iran has enormous and unpredictable implications for Iraq, where Iran has accumulated a lot of influence since 2003. Recently, Iran’s Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other Iranian officials have been pressing Maliki to reconstitute the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), the Shiite religious coalition that included Maliki’s Dawa, ISCI, the forces of Muqtada al-Sadr, and the Fadhila party of southern Iraq into a single unified electoral bloc. So far, Maliki hasn’t agreed — but he did make a pilgrimage to Tehran to meet with the hospitalized leader of ISCI, Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, who is Iran’s key ally in Iraq. Maliki himself has close ties to Iran, and it’s unlikely he’d do anything to jeopardize them.

Both Maliki and Iran agree that it’s important to divide and conquer the secular opposition in Iraq, including the current and former Baathists, members of the Iraqi resistance, the forces that assembled into the Sons of Iraq movement, secular parties such as Iyad Allawi’s group and Saleh Mutlaq’s group. Obama, Vice President Biden, and others half-heartedly have tried to persuade Maliki to make concessions to the opposition, but so far he hasn’t budged. Will the crisis in Iran make Maliki more likely to make a deal with the Iraqi opposition? I doubt it.

Obama seems to hope that he can avoid dealing with Iraq until 2010. That’s a big mistake. Iraq isn’t going away. Last year, during the campaign, Obama made the sensible argument that the international community, including the UN, had to convene a conference to help Iraqis rewrite their constitution in a manner that would weaken centrifugal federalism in favor of a stronger national state and would take some power out of the hands of the separatist Kurds and Shiites. I’d say that’s the last thing on Obama’s mind now. Another mistake. Meanwhile, the White House seems content to let the Pentagon make its Iraq policy. The State Department has been nearly absent from Iraqi policy in 2009.The US ambassador in Baghdad, Christopher Hill, is a complete beginner on Iraq, and he’s been nearly invisible. There’s no “special envoy” for Iraq, unless Obama considers General Ray Odierno to be his special envoy there.

UPDATE The news conference with Obama and Maliki, which ended around 3:35 pm, didn’t make much news. Obama cited security gains and a decline in violence, though he didn’t mention that violence is rising since June 30, when US troops mostly pulled out of Iraq’s cities. Obama stressed that the US seeks no bases in Iraq, and he reiterated the two coming deadlines: August, 2010, for the withdrawal of combat forces and December, 2011, for the complete withdrawal of all US forces. He did say that the US would continue training assistance to “capable and nonsectarian” Iraqi security forces. He said several times that Iraq must accommodate all Iraqis — i.e., Sunnis and Kurds — into the Iraqi government and security forces, in part by making deals over Iraqi oil allocations and “internal borders,” i.e., the undefined borders of the Kurdish area of Iraq outside the three provinces that the Kurds formally control. In response, Maliki talked about something called an “Iraqi national unity government,” but he didn’t define it, and he certainly didn’t make any public comments about being more inclusive.