Iraqi Prime Minister Gets Mixed Response in Congress

Times Staff Writer

Iraq’s prime minister ended a controversial visit to Washington on Wednesday with a plea for more money, a prod not to abandon his country and a pointed effort to dodge criticism over his comments on the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah.

In a speech to a joint meeting of Congress, typically the high point of visits by heads of state, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki hewed close to the Bush administration’s formulation of the challenges in his homeland, describing Iraq as the “vanguard” of the U.S.-declared “war on terror.”

“I know that some of you here question whether Iraq is part of the war on terror,” Maliki told lawmakers. “Let me be very clear: 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.”

The prime minister went out of his way to extol Americans for their help and sacrifices for his country, but he received a decidedly mixed reception on Capitol Hill. Republicans and Democrats responded with vigorous applause to his pledges to combat terrorism, but the reaction was much more tepid when he described the need for more reconstruction money and issued a stern warning about the dangers of abandoning Iraq.


“In 1991, when Iraqis tried to capitalize on the regime’s momentary weakness and rose up, we were alone again,” Maliki said, referring to the United States’ decision not to support a Shiite uprising against Saddam Hussein and instead withdraw from the country at the end of the Persian Gulf War.

“The people of Iraq will not forget your continued support as we establish a secure, liberal democracy. Let 1991 never be repeated, for history will be most unforgiving,” he said.

The prime minister’s visit had been designed to showcase political progress in Iraq under his government. Instead, that purpose was largely overshadowed by a steady controversy stemming from the conflict in Lebanon -- specifically Maliki’s recent condemnation of “Israeli aggression.”

For instance, the issue of whether Maliki, a Shiite Muslim, would also criticize violence by the Shiite militant group Hezbollah dominated a breakfast meeting with congressional leaders.

“I asked him directly: ‘Do you believe that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization?’ ” the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, recounted later. “He would not respond to that question.”

Maliki did make a better impression on others. The Senate’s top Democrat, Harry Reid of Nevada, said that at the breakfast, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari noted that during an Arab League meeting last week, Iraq had joined Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt in criticizing Hezbollah’s actions.

Reid said that although Maliki did not specifically mention Hezbollah during the breakfast, the prime minister repeatedly said his government opposed terrorism “everywhere in the world.”

“I feel better having gone to the breakfast,” Reid said.

In his speech, Maliki asked Congress for more funds for Iraqi reconstruction, saying it was necessary to rebuild stable parts of the country, outside the central region, to serve as a model for those troubled by violence.

“Is he really asking American taxpayers to donate their tax money to Iraqi companies?” asked Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-Fla.), who withheld applause for most of the speech. “I thought the speech was wholly lacking, disingenuous, and disrespectful of other nations in the region.”

A number of Democrats chose to boycott the speech, including Sens. Barbara Boxer of California and Charles E. Schumer of New York.

“I am not ready to honor Prime Minister Al-Maliki in the chamber of the House of Representatives until I have some very serious questions answered by him,” Boxer said. “First, when will he be able to take over the security of his own country so that American soldiers may leave?”

And even as they offered praise for the prime minister, many Republicans felt the need to distance themselves from his comments on the Israel-Hezbollah conflict.

“Just because we welcome a foreign leader to address a joint session does not require complete agreement on every international issue,” Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana, who faces a tough reelection campaign, said in a statement.

House Speaker Rep. J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) tried to make light of lawmakers’ preoccupation with Israel at a time they were supposed to be showcasing Iraq.

“We didn’t ask him to come here for a general commentary on the Middle East,” Hastert said after a Republican strategy meeting.

Many seats on the Democratic side of the chamber were occupied by staffers so the absences of legislators would not be obvious. But lawmakers insisted that there was no widespread boycott by Democrats; a number of absences were caused by schedule conflicts.

For instance, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) skipped the speech to attend back-to-back meetings of the Judiciary and Intelligence committees, which were not rescheduled to accommodate Maliki’s appearance.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the second-ranking House Democrat, said that attendance at events such as the Maliki speech was not mandatory. “It’s hard to get half the caucus to attend anything,” he said.

For the most part, Republicans tried to put a positive spin on Maliki’s two-day visit. Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said he was impressed with Maliki’s determination to make the visit despite opposition back in Iraq.

In an effort to end the visit on a high note, President Bush and Maliki traveled together aboard the Marine One helicopter from the White House to Ft. Belvoir, Va., just south of Washington, to have lunch with military personnel and, in the prime minister’s words, express appreciation for the sacrifice of “your colleagues who offered their lives on the land of Iraq.”

The two leaders posed for photos with the troops, shook hands with others from the post, and then parted after a brief hug, Bush heading to his helicopter and a political fundraising visit to West Virginia and Maliki boarding an identical aircraft after returning the salutes of the Marine Corps crew.


Times staff writers Borzou Daragahi in Baghdad and James Gerstenzang in Ft. Belvoir, Va., contributed to this report