Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki insisted Wednesday that his country is a front line in the war on terrorism and said those behind the rampant violence there are perverting the Islamic faith.
“I know some of you question whether Iraq is part of the war on terror,” al-Maliki told a joint meeting of Congress, where some lawmakers have been critical of the new Iraqi leader’s position on the current conflict between Israel and Hezbollah militants.
“Let me be very clear,” said al-Maliki, speaking through a translator. “This is a battle between true Islam, for which a person’s liberty and rights constitute essential cornerstones, and terrorism, which wraps itself in a fake Islamic cloak.”
Some Democrats shunned the speech, while others later sharply criticized the prime minister for painting a “rosy” picture of Iraq, they said, and not condemning Hezbollah specifically.
Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said not naming Hezbollah as a terrorist organization “adds ambivalence to his comments.” Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, D-Fla., who did not applaud the prime minister’s remarks, called al-Maliki’s speech “disingenuous” because it did not acknowledge the violence in Iraq.
Among those who did not attend the speech were Democrats Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, Gary Ackerman of New York and Nita Lowey of New York.
Al-Maliki shook hands with several members on his way out of the chamber, including Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, who had sharply criticized the Iraqi leader on Tuesday for not condemning Hezbollah.
No Hezbollah mention
Despite tough rhetoric against terrorism in the Middle East, al-Maliki did not mention the Hezbollah conflict. Al-Maliki’s difference of opinion with his hosts over the two-week-old fighting had threatened to sour his visit.
The Bush administration and its ally Israel insist that Hezbollah, which they consider a terror group, must be disarmed and defeated in southern Lebanon. European and Arab allies want a quick cease-fire to stop mounting civilian deaths in Lebanon.
Al-Maliki heads Iraq’s first permanent democratic government, and the Bush administration has much riding on his success. Al-Maliki emerged as a compromise choice to head the multiethnic government two months ago, after agonizing delays sapped the momentum and enthusiasm generated by successful free elections.
Roughly 127,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq, but the administration is under increasing pressure from Democrats — and some Republicans — to bring a substantial number of them home by the end of this year.
‘Foundation for peace’
Congress has approved nearly $300 billion to try to secure and rebuild the country more than three years after a U.S.-led invasion toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.
Later, Bush and al-Maliki flew via helicopter to Fort Belvoir in the Virginia suburbs and ate lunch with military personnel. Troops dressed in light green camouflaged fatigues gave them a standing ovation as they walked into the Community Club. They waved to the crowd, shook a few hands and then Bush gave al-Maliki first dibs in the buffet line.
After lunch of breaded chicken, rice and vegetables, Bush rose to a podium set up in the room and spoke to the roughly 200 troops gathered. He acknowledged the recent death of a soldier from the base, Sgt. 1st Class Scott Smith of Punxsutawney, Pa.
“He helped save lives,” Bush said. “He helped lay that foundation for peace. And in honor of his memory and in the memory of others who have gone before him and in honor of the thousands of Iraqis who have died at the hands of terrorists, we will complete the mission. It’s in our interest, Mr. Prime Minister, that we succeed together.”
Protestor removed from Congress
Al-Maliki, speaking through an interpreter, told the troops that Iraqis will never forget the sacrifice of U.S. soldiers and that they are happy to be partners with the United States “in this holy task of fighting terrorism and establishing democracy.”
“I would like to thank you and thank your families,” al-Maliki said. “And I would like to appreciate your losses, your sacrifices, appreciate the bitterness of those who have lost loved ones. I hope that you can go past your losses and I hope that you can (feel) compensated about what’s happened. We feel pain and sorrow for every drop of blood that falls in Iraq.”
During his address to Congress, al-Maliki appealed for more aid, from the United States and other nations as well. He noted that much of the money provided so far has been spent on security instead of much-needed reconstruction.
“There needs to be a a greater alliance on Iraqis and Iraq companies with foreign aid and assistance to help us rebuild Iraq,” he said.
Al-Maliki was interrupted briefly by a shouting demonstrator wearing a pink T-shirt that read, “Troops Home Now.” The young woman was lifted from her seat by officers and carried out of the House visitor’s gallery, while al-Maliki paused and grimaced in irritation.
Al-Maliki said his country has made great strides despite the threat of extremists he said are bent on destroying Iraq’s nascent democracy.
“Above all they wish to spread fear,” and represent a threat to all free countries, he said.
“Iraq is the battle that will determine the war,” he said. His words echoed those of Bush, who frequently asserts that Iraq is a central battleground against terrorism elsewhere, including on U.S. shores, and that the country can be a bulwark for the spread of freedom in the autocratic Middle East.
Of his people, who have faced violence and death as the country makes a transition from the Saddam’s rule, al-Maliki said: “They have stated over and over again, with the ink-stained fingers waving in pride, they will always make the same choice.”
‘President is not a puppeteer’
Asked about talk among Democrats earlier of boycotting al-Maliki’s address, White House press secretary Tony Snow said, “Let me try to explain democracy to people on Capitol Hill. It involves such rights as free speech and freedom of opinion.
“The president is not a puppeteer in this case. He’s not pulling the strings of Prime Minister al-Maliki. Prime Minister al-Maliki is the duly elected leader of a sovereign state, and as a result, has rights to his opinions.”