WASHINGTON - Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appealed to Congress Wednesday to press the war in Iraq with money and troops, portraying his country as crucial to the U.S. as a front line in the war on terror and comparing violence there to the Sept. 11 attacks.
Addressing a joint meeting of Congress, al-Maliki said, "Do not imagine that this problem is solely an Iraqi problem because the terrorist front represents a threat to all free countries and free people of the world."
Lawmakers in the House chamber gave him a warm welcome, but a number of Democrats stayed away, upset by al-Maliki's stance on another Mideast crisis: He has refused to criticize Hezbollah for its attacks on Israel.
Despite tough rhetoric against terrorism in the Middle East, al-Maliki did not mention the combat between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas that over the past two weeks has killed hundreds, devastated parts of Lebanon and seen rockets bombard northern Israel.
Later in the day, al-Maliki and President Bush ate lunch with military troops at nearby Fort Belvoir in Virginia. Bush praised him there as a man who has "helped save lives."
The speech by al-Maliki, who became prime minister two months ago, capped a two-day visit to Washington that included personal talks with Bush at the White House on Tuesday. His address came with sectarian violence in Iraq on the rise, threatening hopes by the Bush administration and lawmakers facing election this year that some U.S. troops might come home soon.
During his address, al-Maliki appealed for more aid from the United States and other nations and sought to solidify Congress' commitment to rebuilding Iraq, though he mentioned no specifics. In earlier meetings at the White House, the Iraqi leader asked for more military equipment and recommended increasing U.S. and Iraqi forces patrolling Baghdad neighborhoods. Bush agreed and said more U.S. forces would be moved into the embattled capital from other parts of Iraq.
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 Saddam Hussein. Some 127,000 U.S. troops remain in the region.
Without identifying exact amounts, al-Maliki lamented money that has wound up "in the hands of security contractors and foreign companies that operate with enormous profit margins," rather than in the hands of needy Iraqis.
"There needs to be a greater reliance on Iraqis and Iraqi companies with foreign aid and assistance to help us rebuild Iraq," he said.
The responsibility to fight terrorism "lies on the shoulders of every country and every people that respects and cherishes its freedom," al-Maliki said. "The battle of Iraq will decide the fate of this war."
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 Middle East.
Al-Maliki made a direct connection to the 2001 attacks on the U.S., saying, "Thousands of lives were tragically lost on Sept. 11 when these impostors of Islam reared their ugly head. Thousands more continue to die in Iraq today at the hands of the same terrorists who show complete disregard for human life."
Al-Maliki's differences with his hosts over the Mideast fighting had threatened to sour his visit. The Bush administration, U.S. ally Israel and the majority of lawmakers 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.
Sen. John W. Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said the prime minister was under pressure from his constituents and members of the Iraqi Parliament not to come to the United States.
"He was caught right in the middle," Warner told reporters. "But nevertheless, he made a commitment to come" and honored it.
Democrats sharply criticized the prime minister for painting a what they said was a "rosy" picture of Iraq and not condemning Hezbollah.
Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 House Democrat, said not naming Hezbollah as a terrorist organization "adds ambivalence to his comments." Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, D-Fla., called al-Maliki's speech "disingenuous" because it did not acknowledge the violence in Iraq.
Republicans said they were not concerned that al-Maliki did not use his speech to talk about Hezbollah.
"He says he denounces terrorism and I take it at his word. Hezbollah, in my opinion, is a terrorist organization," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.
"The prime minister's address was one of hope and progress," said Joe Wilson, R-S.C.
Lawmakers who shunned the speech included Reps. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., and Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
"I didn't attend because I feel strongly the U.S. Congress should not provide a platform for supporters of Hezbollah," Lowey said. "If Mr. Malaki was wise, he might have requested a meeting with us."
Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said he had asked al-Maliki directly at a breakfast on Wednesday whether he considered Hezbollah a terrorist group. "He questioned whether I had the right to ask him that" Durbin said. Al-Maliki responded in "only the most general terms that he condemns terrorism in all its forms," said Durbin, his party's second-ranking Senate leader.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California attended the speech, along with several other Democrats who had previously questioned whether it was appropriate to let him address the joint meeting because he had not defended Israel.
Al-Maliki was interrupted briefly by a shouting demonstrator wearing a pink T-shirt that read, "Troops Home Now." Medea Benjamin, 54, of San Francisco is cofounder of an anti-war group called CODEPINK. Benjamin was lifted from her seat by officers and carried out of the House visitor's gallery, while al-Maliki paused and grimaced in irritation.
Later, at the Army base, Bush said of al-Maliki: "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."