Iraqi Leader to Address U.S. Congress

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Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki addresses the U.S. Congress, one day after meeting with President Bush to discuss the deteriorating security situation in Iraq. The two men announced changes in the security scheme for Baghdad, and disagreed on solutions for the conflict in Lebanon.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DON GONYEA, host:

And I'm Don Gonyea.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki today addresses a joint meeting of Congress. He also plans to travel with President Bush to Fort Belvoir, Virginia, where he'll visit with U.S. military personnel. Maliki yesterday made headlines when he prompted President Bush to commit more troops to Baghdad, and disagreed with him over the fighting in southern Lebanon.

Here's NPR's David Greene.

DAVID GREENE reporting:

It's safe to say Prime Minister Maliki's visit with President Bush yesterday didn't go exactly as the White House had planned it. It was designed as a day of important symbolism, with the leaders of the two nations standing side by side. But then a reporter asked Maliki his position on Hezbollah and its conflict with Israel. He was speaking through an interpreter.

Prime Minister NOURI AL-MALIKI (Iraq) (Through translator): The important thing here is - what we're trying to do is to stop the killing and the destruction, and then we leave the room and the way for the international and diplomatic efforts and international organization to play the role, to be there.

GREENE: Even more important than what Maliki said may have been what he didn't say. Some lawmakers were expecting him to take Hezbollah to task, even as he called for an immediate cease-fire in the conflict. Mr. Bush even made the point that Israel is battling what the U.S. considers to be a terrorist group in the same way Maliki's government is struggling to rein in insurgents. But Maliki did not follow his cue.

And on Capitol Hill, some Democrats said they might boycott Maliki's speech because of his stand on Hezbollah. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid called on Maliki to change his message by the time he speaks to lawmakers today.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): He said he's opposed to what Israel is doing defending themselves. We want him to make a statement as to how he and his government feels about Hezbollah. And he needs to answer that question. He's in America. America deserves that. We've spent hundreds of billions of dollars in Iraq. We've lost more than 2,500 American soldiers, more than 20,000 wounded. We deserve that answer.

GREENE: Some members of Congress called for Maliki's speech to be cancelled. House Speaker Dennis Hastert said that would be a bad idea, and that Maliki's voice is important to the dialogue on Iraq.

But Maliki's decision to stand apart from the White House on Hezbollah was causing such a stir that the White House tried to change the subject. Mr. Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, told reporters late in the day that the conflict on Israel's border is important, but that Iraq's leader was here to talk about Iraq.

Mr. STEPHEN HADLEY (Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs): And I hope we don't miss - that the administration, the press and the Congress doesn't miss the opportunity to hear from this man and from his cabinet what their plan is going forward, because it's terribly important that Iraq succeed.

GREENE: In the Oval Office yesterday, the president and prime minister spent a lot of time on Iraq, hashing out a plan for U.S. forces to beef up their numbers in Baghdad, where sectarian killing runs rampant. Just six weeks ago, Mr. Bush visited the Iraqi capital and at the time expressed confidence in the newly installed Maliki.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: And so, Mr. Prime Minister, I want to thank you for giving me and my cabinet a chance to hear from you personally, and a chance to meet the members of this, uh, team you've assembled. It's an impressive group of men and women. And if given the right help, I'm convinced, uh, you'll succeed, and so will the world.

GREENE: That theme was a familiar one for Mr. Bush, who often looks at the bright side when he speaks about Iraq and plays up progress. But yesterday, standing beside Maliki in the East Room, the president's outlook was bleak as he said that, at least for now, the Iraqi capital is in trouble.

President BUSH: Obviously, the violence in Baghdad is, uh, still terrible, and therefore there needs to be more, more troops. In other words, the commanders said, what more can we do? How best to address the conditions on the ground? And they have recommended, uh, as a result of working with the prime minister, based upon his recommendation, that we increase the number of U.S. troops in Baghdad, alongside of Iraqi troops. And we're going to do that.

GREENE: On his Baghdad visit, President Bush said Maliki had a window of opportunity. In his speech to Congress today, the Iraqi leader will ask for a chance to keep that window open.

David Greene, NPR News, Washington.

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