Al-Maliki asks for more U.S. aid

Iraqi prime minister gets mixed reception from members of Congress


WASHINGTON -- Iraq's prime minister ended his visit to Washington yesterday 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 session of Congress, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki hewed close to the Bush administration's formulation of the challenges in his homeland, describing Iraq as the "vanguard" of the "war on terror."

"I know that some of you here question whether Iraq is part of the war on terror," al-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."

Al-Maliki went out of his way to extol Americans for their help and sacrifices for his country, but he got a decidedly mixed reception on Capitol Hill. Republicans and Democrats alike responded with vigorous applause to his pledges to combat terrorism, but the reaction was significantly 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," al-Maliki said, referring to the U.S. 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."

The prime minister's visit had been designed to showcase political progress in Iraq as the U.S. election season heats up, a surge in violence continues and questions over the administration's policies in Iraq mount.

Instead, the situation in Iraq was largely overshadowed by a steady controversy stemming from the conflict in Lebanon - in particular, al-Maliki's condemnation of "Israeli aggression." The issue of whether al-Maliki would also criticize violence by 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."

Al-Maliki did make a better impression on others. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said that Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari revealed during the breakfast that Iraq had criticized Hezbollah's actions last week in a joint statement with Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt during an Arab League meeting. Reid said that although Hezbollah was not specifically mentioned, the prime minister repeatedly insisted that his government opposes terrorism "everywhere in the world."

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

Al-Maliki used his speech to ask Congress for a new influx of funding for Iraqi reconstruction, saying it is necessary to rebuild the stable parts of the country to serve as a model for those troubled by violence.

"Much of the budget you had allocated for Iraq's reconstruction ended up paying for security firms and foreign companies, whose operating costs were vast," al-Maliki said. "Instead, there needs to be a greater reliance on Iraqis and Iraqi companies, with foreign aid and assistance to help us rebuild Iraq."

"Is he really asking American taxpayers to donate their tax money to Iraqi companies?" asked Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida Democrat, who withheld her applause nearly throughout 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 in protest, including Sens. Barbara Boxer of California and Charles E. Schumer of New York.

In an effort to end the prime minister's visit on a high note, President Bush and al-Maliki traveled aboard the Marine One helicopter from the White House to Fort Belvoir, Va., to have lunch with military personnel. During the visit, the prime minister expressed appreciation for the sacrifice of "your colleagues who offered their lives on the land of Iraq."

Maura Reynolds writes for Los Angeles Times.

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