Given the 130,000 U.S. troops still in Iraq, it’s striking how little attention the media paid to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s visit to Washington last week.

Maybe Americans, or journalists, are weary of Iraq, especially now that a U.S.-Iraqi accord has set an exit date for American troops — by the end of 2011. So Maliki only got media notice when he said Iraq might reconsider the deadline “if Iraqi forces require further training and support.”

But the focus on whether some U.S. trainers and enablers may stay on misses a key aspect of the visit. Ask me the most important accomplishment of Maliki’s trip, and I’d pick an event that passed almost unnoticed: the Iraq Education Initiative, announced by Maliki on Saturday. The program will send up to 10,000 students per year over the next five years to the United States and other English-speaking countries, on full Iraqi scholarships.

What that initiative signals is that Iraqi-U.S. relationships are shifting, as they must, to another dimension. Now that Iraqi violence is way down, what matters is the kind of country that will emerge out of decades of pain and turmoil — and what long-term relationship develops between our two countries. These are the results that will determine whether Iraqi and American sacrifices have been worthwhile.

While Americans are aware of the December accord that governs our troop exit, you may not know we signed a Strategic Framework Agreement simultaneously that was meant to deepen U.S.-Iraqi economic, political, cultural, and educational ties. The Iraq Education Initiative gives the first insight into how the U.S.-Iraqi relationship can broaden under the SFA.

“A healthy relationship between Iraq and the United States should not be based on American soldiers working as policemen on Iraqi streets,” said Maliki political adviser Sadiq al-Rikabi in an interview. “We’re working hard to build a normal state and normalize our relationship with the United States.” The SFA, he says, is essential to that goal.

Yes, skepticism is justified. Iraq is still going through spasms of violence, has a dysfunctional political system, and experiences continuing sectarian tensions. However, despite efforts by radical remnants to reignite civil war, most Iraqi political groups appear committed to resolving their differences in the political arena. Attention is focused on 2010 elections.

And, yes, Maliki, who is playing to nationalist sentiment at home, has often infuriated U.S. military and civilian officials. Example: when he trumpeted the June 30 withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraqi cities as a “victory” for Iraq over American “occupiers.” The U.S. envoy to Iraq, Chris Hill, said last week that Maliki’s comments were sometimes “hard to take.”

Yet, on this visit, the prime minister struck a different tone, in remarks at the U.S. Institute for Peace, that will surely receive wide circulation in Iraq. “We want and seek a strong and solid relationship which is open with the Americans,” he said, “and there are no internal politics of Iraq that prohibit us from having such a . . . relationship with a great country like the United States.”

Which brings me back to the education initiative. I spoke with Zuhair Humadi, the executive director of the Higher Committee for Educational Development in Iraq, which will administer the program. He explained that it will serve two purposes: “Our objective is to reform the Iraqi educational system, and sending young people abroad will enhance their capabilities within Iraq.”

The program will also give young Iraqis, who have long been isolated, “an opportunity to see what is going on in the world,” adds Humadi, a well-known expert on international education. “It exposes them to democratic institutions and values.”

The initiative will begin in 2009-10 with a pilot program of 500 students chosen by scholastic achievement all over Iraq. Female students will be welcome. (Iraq has a tradition of women’s education.) If, as Humadi insists, politics and sect can be kept out of the selection, that alone would represent a milestone in Iraqi progress.

A new consortium of American universities will streamline admissions for qualified Iraqis; a new English Language Institute in Baghdad will bolster the language skills of successful candidates. They will be expected to return to Iraq once they finish their studies.

Humadi sees this initiative as a precursor for Iraq’s developing “a new model” of democratic government in the Arab world. That may be jumping too far ahead in predictions.

But Maliki’s Iraq Education Initiative could become a model for the kind of U.S.-Iraqi ties that can help Iraq become a normal and prospering country. Such a vision may seem far off at this moment. Yet the most important gains from Maliki’s visit will be those that make this vision more likely down the road.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her e-mail address is: [email protected]

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