Weeks before the U.S. pullout, Iraq's prime minister confidently predicted Saturday that his country will achieve stability and remain independent of its giant neighbor Iran even without an American troop presence.
Nouri al-Maliki also warned of civil war in Iran's ally Syria if 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 U.S. 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 U.N. says has killed more than 4,000 people so far, the bloodiest in a wave of uprisings that have been dubbed the Arab Spring.
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 Shiite 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.
The prime minister defended his country's stance when it comes to how to address the instability roiling neighboring Syria right now.
The U.N.'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 Iraq believes the Syrian people's rights should be protected and that his government has told the Syrian regime that the age of one party and one sect running the country is over. Syria is ruled by a minority Alawite regime, an offshoot of Shiism, that rules over a Sunni Muslim majority.
The Iraqi prime minister even said that members of the Syrian opposition had recently asked to come to Iraq, and that his government would meet with them. But he distanced himself from calls for Assad's ouster, warning that could plunge the country into civil war.
"The killing or removal of President Bashar in any way will explode into an internal struggle between two groups and this will have an impact on the region," al-Maliki said.
"My opinion _ I also lived in Syria for more than 16 years _ is that it will end with civil war and this civil war will lead to alliances in the region. Because we are a country that suffered from the civil war of a sectarian background, we fear for the future of Syria and the whole region," he said.
Al-Maliki also insisted his forces were ready to take over security during a wide-ranging discussion on where his country stands ahead of 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.
The U.S. withdrawal has occurred in stages, with the American military pulling out of the cities in 2008, leaving the soldiers largely confined to bases as Iraqi security forces took the lead. About 13,000 U.S. troops are still in the country, down from a one-time high of about 170,000.
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.
"What was taking place during the presence of the American forces will decrease in the period after the withdrawal," he said. "Some people find a pretext in the presence of the American forces to justify their acts, but now what justification will they come up with?"
Associated Press writer Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.