Iraq has tried to maintain a neutral stance toward the civil war in Syria, saying that the aspirations of the Syrian people should be met through peaceful means.
Washington has criticized Baghdad, however, for doing too little to stop flights suspected of carrying Iranian arms to Syria from transiting Iraqi airspace.
Al-Maliki emphatically denied aiding the arms transfers: "Not to the regime and not to the opposition. No weapon is being transferred through Iraqi skies, territories or waters," he said.
He characterized Baghdad's relationship with the U.S. as maturing nearly a decade after the March 20, 2003, invasion, and said there is a strong will on both sides to strengthen relations further.
He also took another opportunity to note his country's appreciation for the U.S. role in toppling Saddam's dictatorship, and said the withdrawal of American troops in December 2011 was the right decision at the right time. A small number of U.S. military personnel remain in Iraq, but they are an arm of the American Embassy.
Many Sunnis have long blamed al-Maliki for promoting his Shiite sect at their expense and for being too closely aligned with neighboring Iran.
His government has faced two months of unexpectedly resilient protests from the Sunni community, whose members held many senior positions in Saddam's regime.
The rallies, which have been largely peaceful, erupted in Iraq's western Sunni heartland of Anbar in late December following the arrest of bodyguards assigned to Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi, one of the most senior Sunni politicians in government.
Although the detentions were the spark for the demonstrations, the rallies tap into deeper Sunni grievances, drawing on feelings of discrimination at the hands of al-Maliki's government.
Al-Maliki and his political allies initially dismissed the protesters. But as their rallies gained strength and spread throughout parts of Iraq where Sunnis are concentrated, the stern-faced premier began to offer concessions.
His government bowed to one of the protesters' early demands and released more than 2,000 detainees, including some held without charge. He also set up a committee to examine other grievances.
The prime minister vowed Tuesday to let the protests continue as long as they remain peaceful.
But he made a point of distinguishing between the protesters and the political leaders who back them.
He also suggested, as he has done in the past, that outside influences — an apparent allusion to predominantly Sunni countries such as Turkey and the Gulf states — are helping to fuel the unrest.
"What is going on in Iraq is connected to what is happening in the region. It is also connected to the results of the so-called Arab Spring and some sectarian policies in the region," he said.
"Our patience will continue because we believe that there are people in these provinces who are patriotic and they reject sectarianism, believe in the unity of the country and denounce the voices uttering sectarian words."
There is little chance of a return to open warfare in Iraq, since the Sunnis know they stand little chance of overpowering the Shiites. Nor do the majority of Iraq's Sunni Arabs, including protesters, support al-Qaida and its frequent widespread bombings of Shiite targets.
But Baghdad-based political analyst Hadi Jalo said al-Maliki is right to fear regime change in Syria.
"The removal of Assad by a Sunni government will weaken the Iraqi Shiites," Jalo said, noting that it could embolden Iraq's Sunnis to push for greater autonomy and even independence. "Any reasonable person would be surprised if the Iraqi government stands still and refrains from supporting Assad."
Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad, Bradley Klapper in Washington and Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.
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