Iraqi prime minister will speak to Congress

Seeking to shore up the U.S. military commitment in Iraq, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki must charm an increasingly skeptical Congress that is wary of his criticism of Israel and concerned about rising violence in Baghdad.

During his first trip to Washington since becoming prime minister two months ago, Al-Maliki was to address the House and Senate in a joint meeting on Wednesday.

In earlier meetings with President Bush, the Iraqi leader asked the United States for more military equipment and recommended increasing U.S. and Iraqi forces patrolling Baghdad neighborhoods.

Al-Maliki told reporters he and Bush agreed Iraqi forces needed training and better arms “as quickly as possible,” particularly in the besieged capital city, to stabilize the country. Bush said the violence in Baghdad “is still terrible” and more troops are needed there.

The president said U.S. forces would be moved into Baghdad from other parts of Iraq. He did not say how many troops would be redeployed, but Pentagon officials have suggested several thousand soldiers would be moved to Baghdad, including some now based in Kuwait.

Roughly 127,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq, but the administration is under increasing pressure from both Democrats and some Republicans to bring a substantial number of them home by the end of this year.

“I certainly hope that he stands as strong as he can because we’ve got an awful lot of the credibility of the United States riding on his ability to lead this government,” said Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

At the same time, leading House and Senate Democrats said they were incensed by al-Maliki’s position on the Israel-Hezbollah conflict. Al-Maliki has condemned what he called Israel’s “hostile acts” in Lebanon and said the international community has not done enough to stop it.

The House and Senate last week overwhelmingly approved resolutions in support of Israel, which began heavy attacks on Hezbollah sites in Lebanon two weeks ago after Hezbollah forces crossed into northern Israel, killed eight Israeli soldiers and captured two.

Al-Maliki sidestepped a direct question at a White House news conference Tuesday about his position on Hezbollah, the guerrilla group that dominates south Lebanon.

“Here, actually, we’re talking about the suffering of a people in a country. And we are not in the process of reviewing one issue or another, or any government position,” al-Maliki said.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said he doubted he would attend al-Maliki’s address, and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi hinted she too would boycott the speech. “Unless Mr. Maliki disavows his critical comments of Israel and condemns terrorism, it is inappropriate to honor him with a joint meeting of Congress,” said Pelosi, D-Calif.

Another 20 Democrats, including Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, sent a letter to GOP House leadership asking to rescind al-Maliki’s invitation to address Congress.

“We are unaware of any prior instance where a world leader who worked against the interests of the United States was afforded such an honor,” the Democrats wrote.

GOP members said they too were concerned about the direction of the Iraq government, but they wanted to retain a dialogue with al-Maliki and other top leaders.

“We’ve got a major commitment in Iraq,” said Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee. To succeed, “you’re going to have to engage.”

Warner said attending al-Maliki’s address and engaging his government were critical to achieve success in Iraq. Warner also said he has warned the administration about unintended consequences from supporting Israel’s military operations.

“You’ve got to bear in mind that what’s taking place in Israel, Lebanon and Gaza today is fueling the Muslim world,” he said. “And I just hope that doesn’t put at greater risk our men and women in uniform trying to carry out that mission in Iraq.”

© 2006 The Associated Press