The Arab World Watches Maliki's U.S. Visit

How is Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's trip to Washington playing back home in Iraq and in other Arab nations? To find out, Robert Siegel talks with Nadia Bilbassy, senior correspondent for the Al-Arabiya television, who has been covering his visit to Washington.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

How might the Maliki visit to Washington play back home in Iraq or, for that matter, in other Arab countries? Well, Nadia Bilbassy is senior correspondent for the Al-Arabiya television, which is based in Dubai. It's watched by a great many Iraqis. She's based here in Washington. Welcome.

NADIA BILBASSY: Thank you.

SIEGEL: You filed your story on the speech to the joint session of Congress today. How did you describe it to viewers back home?

BILBASSY: Well, I think first of all it was a general speech. There was nothing that really makes someone wonder if there's anything new. He talks about fighting terrorism. He talks about making Iraq safe. He talks about American troops have to stay until the job is done with training the Iraqi forces.

One thing I think that attracted my attention, he said about his reconciliation program, or project actually, that has been controversial, which is allowing armed groups to be part of a dialogue. And he said if you interpret that as a weakness, you are mistaken. We want to do it because we are determined that Iraq has to have some kind of a national reconciliation process.

The other thing that actually he said was, when he talked about the militia.

SIEGEL: The great danger to the country, he says, yes.

BILBASSY: Exactly. He was talking about disarming the militias and he said regardless of where they come from and who they are. And of course he's referring now to the Shiite militias.

And I described his speech to the Congress in this dimension, but also the most controversial thing is the Democrats threatening to walk out from his speech, criticizing him for basically saying that Israeli aggression on Lebanon has to stop and for not condemning Hezbollah. I actually led with the story that they threatened to boycott him even before he came to Congress, but he walks in. They stayed, but we don't know what's going to happen.

SIEGEL: How do you think this will sound and appear to Iraqi news consumers back home? Has Prime Minister Maliki sounded independent and like the leader of a relatively strong independent state or is he coming to tell Americans what they want to hear?

BILBASSY: Well actually that's the difference between all the Iraqi Prime Ministers and presidents that I have covered in the last three years that we have seen in coming to Washington. He'd been seen really as independent. The administration, yesterday some sources were trying to tell me that they describe it as a healthy democracy. If you disagree with us, that's fine, because Israel is our strategic ally and you can have a point of difference here.

But the fact that he comes and speaks, strongly actually, against - what do you call it - Israeli aggression and he's calling for a cease-fire. It's a different point of view and it's playing well back home.

SIEGEL: That plays well, the fact that he may be criticized by Americans for seeming to support Hezbollah might indeed be read by Iraqis as a sign that he's not under American control at this point.

BILBASSY: Absolutely, because, you know, the criticism not just in Iraq but all over the Arab world that any Iraqi government's going to be a puppet of the American administration. And some even - we know before he came that he went to the U.S. for political reasons. We know that Congress is having election in November. The administration wants to give a rosy picture of what's happening in Iraq. There is progress, yes. There is problems, but there's progress, and here you can come and hear it from the Prime Minister himself.

And actually, if you saw yesterday the press conference at the White House, the body language wasn't really there. I mean, the president was a little bit not in his usual self, if you wanted to say. So I don't think necessarily they were seeing eye to eye and the fact that the president used the word frank to describe the discussion means there were disagreements.

SIEGEL: That there was disagreement and that would add to the credibility of the Prime Minister with Arab audiences, that there's some disagreement.

BILBASSY: Absolutely.

SIEGEL: I'm curious about one thing you said, that Prime Minister al-Maliki, the way in which he has behaved here is different from previous Iraqi leaders over the past three years that you've been based in Washington, as you've seen them come through town. There's something qualitatively different about this visit.

BILBASSY: There is something different. I mean, this man has to assert himself. He has to prove that he can lead Iraq, and a future democratic Iraqi state, a stable one, but he has to be credible in the eyes of the Iraqis before in the eyes of the Americans. He's very thankful for the Americans and we saw a little bit of complimentary sentences, etcetera, but generally speaking, yes, he has his own point of view and I think he said it loudly.

But now, this is coming on top of what's happening in Lebanon. Don't forget he's a Shiite. And I heard some of my colleagues in the White House trying to press him, what is your relationship with Hezbollah? You know, can you condemn them, etcetera?

It's very difficult for him to condemn Hezbollah. It's the same for any other leader in the region. So it's fine for the Americans to characterize them as a terrorist organization, the same for Hamas. But on the ground, in the Arab streets, in the Arab capitals in the bigger Muslim world, they're not a terrorist group. They are seen as a legitimate resistance group that are there because of the occupation. If there is no occupation, there is no resistance.

SIEGEL: So to expect Prime Minister Maliki to share the American view of what's happening there would be to ask him to lose credibility with Iraqis back home.

BILBASSY: Absolutely.

SIEGEL: Well, Nadia Bilbassy, thank you very much for talking with us today.

BILBASSY: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: Nadia Bilbassy is senior correspondent for Al-Arabiya Television satellite television channel, viewed by a great many Iraqis and others throughout the Arab world, and she is based here in Washington, D.C.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And you can read the full transcript of Maliki's address to Congress at NPR.org.

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Prime Minister Maliki's Address to Congress

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki acknowledges applause from the assembled U.S. Congress. i i

hide captionIraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki acknowledges applause from the assembled U.S. Congress. Behind him are Vice President Dick Cheney and House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki acknowledges applause from the assembled U.S. Congress.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki acknowledges applause from the assembled U.S. Congress. Behind him are Vice President Dick Cheney and House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

About Nouri al-Maliki

Born: 1950

Birthplace: Hindiya, Iraq

Family: One son, three daughters

Elected to parliament in January 2005.

Member of the Dawa Party, Iraq's oldest Shiite political party.

Bargained for Shiite Alliance in talks on permanent constitution.

This is his first trip to Washington since becoming prime minister in May.

Associated Press

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki shakes hands with congressional pages after his address. i i

hide captionIraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki shakes hands with congressional pages after his address.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki shakes hands with congressional pages after his address.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki shakes hands with congressional pages after his address.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's address to the U.S. Congress was delivered through an interpreter. The English-language transcript was provided by Federal News Service.

PRIME MIN. AL-MALIKI: (Extended Applause.) In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful. Your Excellency the speaker of the House, Mr. Vice President, honorable ladies and gentlemen, members of Congress, it is with great pleasure that I am able to take this opportunity to be the first democratically and constitutionally elected prime minister of Iraq to address you, the elected representatives of the American people. And I thank you for affording me this unique chance to speak at this respected assembly.

Let me begin by thanking the American people, through you, on behalf of the Iraqi people, for supporting our people in ousting dictatorship. Iraq will not forget those who stood with her – with him and who continues to stand with her in times of need. (Applause.)

Thank you for your continued resolve in helping us fight the terrorists plaguing Iraq, which is a struggle to defend our nascent democracy and our people who aspire to liberty, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

All of those are not Western values; they are universal values for humanity. (Applause.) They are as much for me the pinnacle embodiment of my faith and religion, and they are for all free spirits.

The war on terror is a real war against those who wish to burn out the flame of freedom, and we are in this vanguard for defending the values of humanity. (Applause.)

I know that some of you here question whether Iraq is part of the war on terror. 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; in reality, wages a war on Islam and Muslims and values — (applause) — and spreads hatred between humanity.

Contrary to what's come in our Koran, which says we have created of you — of male and female and made you tribes and families that you know each other, surely noblist of you in the sight of God is the best conduct. The truth is that terrorism has no religion. Our faith say that who kills an innocent as it has killed all mankind. Thousands of lives were tragically lost in September 11th, where — when these imposters 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.

Your loss on that day was the loss of all mankind, and our loss today is loss for all free people. (Applause.)

And wherever human kind suffers a loss at the hands of terrorists, it is a loss of all humanity. It is your duty and our duty to defeat this terror. Iraq is the front line is this struggle, and history will prove that the sacrifices of Iraqis for freedom will not be in vain. Iraqis are your allies in the war on terror. (Applause.)

And history will record their bravery and humanity. The fate of our country and yours is tied. Should democracy be allowed to fail in Iraq and terror permitted to triumph, then the war on terror will never be won elsewhere.

Mr. Speaker, we are building the new Iraq on the foundation of democracy, and are erecting it through our belief in the rights of every individual, just as Saddam has destroyed it through his abuse of all those rights, so that future Iraqi generations can live in peace, prosperity and hope. Iraqis have tasted freedom, and we will defend it absolutely. (Applause.)

Every human possesses inalienable rights which transcend religion, as it is stated in the International Convention of Human Rights. They transcend religion, race and gender, and God says in the Koran, and surely we have honored all children of Adam.

I believe these human rights are not an artifact construct reserved for the few; they are the divine entitlement for all. (Applause.) And it is on this unwavering belief that we are determined to build our nation, a land whose people are free, whose air is liberty, and where the rule of law is supreme.

This is the new Iraq, which is emerging from the ashes of dictatorship, and despite the carnage of extremists, a country which respects international conventions and practices non-interference in the internal affairs of others, relies on dialogue to resolve differences, and strives to develop strong relations with every country that espouses freedom and peace. (Applause.)

We are working diligently so that Iraq returns to take the position it deserves and to play — plays a positive role in its regional and international environment as a key, active player in spreading security and stability, to give an example of positive relationship between countries through denouncement of violence and resorting to constructive dialogue solving problems between nations and peoples.

We have made progress, and we are correcting the damage inflicted by politics of the previous regime, in particular with our neighbors. My presence here is a testament of the new politics of a democratic Iraq. (Applause.)

Ladies and gentlemen, in a short space of time, Iraq has gone from a dictatorship, to a transitional administration, and now to a fully fledged democratic government. This has happened despite the best efforts of the terrorists who are bent on either destroying democracy or Iraq. But by the courage of our people, who defied the terrorists every time they were called upon to make a choice by risking their lives for the ballot box, they have stated over and over again with their inked-stained fingers waving in pride that they will always make the same choice. (Applause.)

Hope over fear —

HECKLER: The Iraqis want the troops to leave! Bring them home now! Iraqis want the troops to leave —

AUDIENCE: Boo!

SPEAKER HASTERT: (Sounds gavel.)

HECKLER: Iraqis want the troops to leave! Bring them home now!

SPEAKER HASTERT: Our guest would suspend for the — a moment. The chair notes a disturbance in the gallery. The sergeant of arms will secure order by removing those engaging in disruption. (Scattered applause.)

HECKLER: Iraqis want the troops to leave! Bring them home now! (Off mike) — bring the troops home now!

(Note: Heckler is removed from the gallery.)

SPEAKER HASTERT: The gentleman may proceed.

PRIME MIN. AL-MALIKI: Hope over fear. Liberty over oppression. Dignity over submission. Democracy over dictatorship. Federalism over a centralist state. Let there be no doubt. Today Iraq is a democracy which stands firm because of the sacrifices of its people and the sacrifices of all those who stood with us in this crisis from nations and countries. (Applause, cheers.)

And that's why I thank you. I would like to thank them very much for all their sacrifices. Iraqis of all persuasions took part in a unanimously democratic election for the first parliament formed under the country's first permanent constitution, after eight decades of temporary constitutions and dictatorship, a constitution written by the elected representatives of the people and ratified by the people.

Iraqis succeeded in forming a government of national unity, based on an elected parliamentary foundation and includes all of Iraq's religions, ethnicities and political groupings.

The journey has been perilous, and the future is not guaranteed. Yet many around the world who — underestimated the resolve of Iraq's people and were sure that we would never reach this stage. Few believed in us. But you, the American people, did, and we are grateful for this. (Applause.)

The transformation in Iraq can sometimes be forgotten in the daily futile violence. Since liberation we have witnessed great accomplishments in politics, the economy and civil society. We have gone from a one-party state ruled by a small elite to a multi-party system where politics is the domain of every citizen and parties compete at all levels. (Applause.)

What used to be a state-controlled media is now completely free and uncensored — something Iraq had never witnessed since its establishment as a modern state, and something which remains alien to most of the region.

What used to be a command economy in Iraq we are rapidly transforming into a free market economy. In the past three years, our GDP per capita has more than doubled, and it is expected that our economy will continue to grow.

Standards of living have been raised for most Iraqis as the markets witness an unprecedented level of prosperity. Many individuals are buying products and appliances which they would never have hoped to afford in the past.

And in keeping with our economic visions of creating a free market economy, we will be presenting to parliament legislation which will lift current restrictions on foreign companies and investors who wish to come to Iraq. (Applause.)

While we are making great economic strides, the greatest transformation has been on Iraqi society. We have gone from mass graves and torture chambers and chemical weapons to a flourishing — to the rule of law and human rights. And the human rights and freedoms embodied in the new Iraq and consolidated in the constitution have provided a fertile environment for the ever-growing number of civil society institutions — (applause) — which are increasing in scope and complexity and provide a healthy reflection of what is developing beneath the violence.

The rights chartered in the constitution will also help consolidate the role of women in public life as equals to men — (applause) — and help them to play a greater role in political life. (Applause continuing.) I am proud to say that a quarter of Iraq's Council of Representatives is made up of women. But we still have much to accomplish.

Mr. Speaker, our — Mr. Vice President, our nascent democracy faces numerous challenges and impediments, but our resolve is unbreakable and we will overcome them.

The greatest threat Iraq's people face is terror, terror inflicted by extremists who value no life and who depend on the fear their wanton murder and destruction creates. They have poured acid into Iraq's dictatorial wounds and created many of their own.

Iraq is free and the terrorists cannot stand this. They hope to undermine our democratically elected government through the random killing of civilians. They want to destroy Iraq's future by assassinating our leading scientific, political and community leaders. Above all, they wish to spread fear.

Do not think that this is an Iraqi problem. This terrorist front is a threat to every free country in the world and their citizens. What is at stake is nothing less than our freedom and liberty. Confronting and dealing with this challenge is the responsibility of every liberal democracy that values its freedom. Iraq is the battle that will determine the war. If in continued partnership we have the strength of mind and commitment to defeat the terrorists and their ideology in Iraq, they will never be able to recover. (Applause.)

For the sake of success of the political process, I launched the National Reconciliation Initiative, which aims to draw in groups willing to accept the logic of dialogue and participation. This olive branch has received the backing of Iraq's parliamentary blocs and support further afield from large segments of the population. I remain determined to see this initiative succeed. But let our enemies not mistake our outstretched hand for forgiveness as a sign of weakness. Whoever chooses violence against the people of Iraq, then the fate that awaits them will be the same that of the terrorist Zarqawi. (Applause.)

While political and economic efforts are essential, defeating terror in Iraq relies fundamentally on the building of sound Iraqi force, both in quantity and capability. The completion of Iraq's forces forms the necessary basis for the withdrawal of multinational forces, but it — only then, only when Iraq's forces are fully capable will the job of the multinational forces be complete.

Our Iraqi forces have accomplished much, and have gained a great deal of field experience to eventually enable them to triumph over the terrorists and to take over the security portfolio and extend peace through the country.

The other impediment to Iraq's stability are the armed militias. I have on many occasions stated my determination to disband all militias, without exception — (applause) — and reestablish a state monopoly on arms, and to guarantee citizens security so that they do not need others to provide it.

It is imperative that the reconstruction starts now. While small sections of central Iraq are unstable, large sections have remained peaceful but ignored for far too long. These were most deprived areas of Iraq under the previous regime, and have been the most valiant in Iraq's struggle for freedom. We need to make an example out of these stable areas as models for the rest of the country. (Applause.)

Reconstruction projects in these areas will tackle unemployment, which will weaken the terrorists. They will become prototypes for other, more volatile regions (to) aspire to. Undoubtedly, reconstruction in these areas will fuel economic growth and show what a prosperous, stable, democratic and federal Iraq would look like.

Members of the Congress, in this effort, we need your help. We need the help of the international community. 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.

Instead there needs to be a greater reliance on Iraqis and Iraqi companies, with foreign aid and assistance to help us rebuild Iraq. (Applause.)

We are rebuilding Iraq on a new, solid foundation, that of liberty, hope and equality. Iraq's democracy is young, but the will of its people is strong. It is because of this spirit and desire to be free that Iraq has taken the opportunity you gave us, and we chose democracy.

We faced tyranny and oppression under the former regime, and we now face a different kind of terror. We did not bow then, and we will not bow now. (Applause.)

I will not allow Iraq to become a launch pad for al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. I will not — terror rob Iraqis of their hopes and dreams. I will not allow terrorists to dictate to us our future.(Applause.)

For decades we struggled alone for our freedom. In 1991, when Iraqis tried to capitalize on the regime's momentary weakness and rose up, we were alone again.

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 more unforgiving. (Applause.)

The coming few days are difficult and the challenges are considerable. Iraq and America both need each other to defeat the terror engulfing the free world. In partnership, we will be triumphant because we will never be slaves to terror, for God has made us free. (Applause.)

Trust that Iraq will be a grave for terrorism and terrorists. (Applause.) Trust that Iraq will be the graveyard for terrorism and terrorists, for all — for the good of all humanity.

Thank you very much. (Cheers, extended applause.)

Copyright 2006, Federal News Service

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