Iraqi Prime Minister Presses for More Aid

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 27, 2006

A day after securing a pledge from President Bush to bolster U.S. troop presence in Baghdad, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki asked Congress yesterday for more reconstruction aid, acknowledging that most of the billions already allocated were swallowed by security costs. And he warned the United States not to abandon Iraq, as it did after the Persian Gulf War when the United States stood aside as a Shiite rebellion was crushed by Saddam Hussein.

"Let 1991 never be repeated, for history will be most unforgiving," Maliki said during a speech to a joint meeting of Congress.

He used the speech to reaffirm his new government's commitment to the war on terrorism, pledging that "Iraq will be the graveyard of terrorism and terrorists for the good of all humanity."

Republicans had hoped to use Maliki's visit to showcase progress toward democracy in Iraq, but the prime minister's two-day stay in Washington proved to be politically problematic. Bush's promise to fortify troop presence in Baghdad virtually foreclosed major troop withdrawals before November's midterm election. And Maliki declined to disavow his critical comments on Israel's incursion into Lebanon or denounce Hezbollah's killing and kidnapping of Israeli troops that precipitated the fighting, handing Democrats a wedge that they eagerly used.

At a breakfast meeting yesterday with congressional leaders, Democrats repeatedly pressed Maliki to declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization, but Maliki would not reply beyond broad denunciations of terrorism, according to several participants.

Democrats such as Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) protested the prime minister's oblique stand on Hezbollah and his denunciation of Israeli "aggression" by refusing to attend Maliki's address, forcing congressional leaders to fill empty seats in the House chamber with youthful aides.

Other Democrats, such as Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), sat in stone-faced silence, then decried the speech for its failure to recognize Middle East terrorism beyond Iraq's borders or to be frank about sectarian strife that is killing an estimated 100 Iraqis a day.

"He essentially ignored the fact that he is the president of a war zone," Wasserman Schultz said.

Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean called Maliki an "anti-Semite" for failing to denounce Hezbollah for its attacks against Israel. "We don't need to spend $200 and $300 and $500 billion dollars bringing democracy to Iraq to turn it over to people who believe that Israel doesn't have a right to defend itself and who refuse to condemn Hezbollah," the Democratic leader told a gathering of business leaders in Florida.

Republicans fired back at what they perceived as a Democratic partisan ploy playing out at the expense of a crucial U.S. ally.

"The House Democrat leader and some of her Democrat colleagues may not agree with the liberation of Iraq and they may not agree with criticism by some against Israel's actions, but their continued efforts to undermine the advancement of freedom and democracy in Iraq is shameful," Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said.

White House spokesman 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."

Veteran San Francisco activist Medea Benjamin, wearing a "Troops Home Now" T-shirt, chimed in, standing in the House gallery to interrupt Maliki's address with repeated shouts of: "Iraqis want the troops to leave. Bring them home now." She was promptly removed and arrested.

Amid such discord, Maliki struck lofty tones as he thanked the United States for standing by Iraq.

"Many around the world underestimated the resolve of Iraq's people and were sure that we would never reach this stage," he said. "Few believed in us. But you, the American people, did, and we are grateful for this."

But he also inserted himself into the election-year controversy over the war, acknowledging, "I know that some of you here question whether Iraq is part of the war on terror.

"The fate of our country and yours is tied," he continued. "Should democracy be allowed to fail in Iraq and terror permitted to triumph, then the war on terror will never be won elsewhere."

In a visit with Maliki to Fort Belvoir after the speech, Bush seconded the prime minister's position, saying that "success in Iraq is necessary for the security of the United States, and it's necessary for the peace of the world."

Maliki also appealed to Congress for more reconstruction aid, which the Bush administration has been reluctant to request after much of the $18 billion in development assistance was consumed by security costs, corruption and inefficiency.

"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," Maliki told Congress. "Instead, there needs to be a greater reliance on Iraqis and Iraqi companies, with foreign aid and assistance to help us rebuild Iraq."

Republicans hailed Maliki's speech as historic. But Maliki's appeals for continued military and economic assistance were not likely to sit well with a wide swath of the U.S. electorate, which has grown weary of the war, according to polls.

Iraqi officials are "fortunate souls, because they have the strongest military in the world at their beck and call to protect them every single day," Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said. "There has to be a change. The Iraqis have to accept responsibility for their own fate and future."

But the debate before and after the address was not so much about Iraq but about Maliki's position on Hezbollah and the fighting in Lebanon. Before the speech, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) emerged from breakfast with Maliki to declare, "He disavowed any terrorist organization," adding that "he talked about Hezbollah specifically."

Later, after Democrats at the meeting disputed his assertion, Hastert conceded that: "We didn't ask him to come here for general commentary on the Middle East. He denounces terrorism, and I have to take him at his word. Hezbollah is a terrorist organization."

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