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Allawi Thanks U.S., Stresses Iraqi Resolve

In a speech to Congress, the interim leader links his nation's conflict to the war on terror. He maintains elections will be held on time.

September 24, 2004|Tyler Marshall | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Hoping to ease American doubts about a costly and protracted war, interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi thanked the United States on Thursday for helping free his country and insisted that his government would defeat a virulent insurgency.

"We are succeeding in Iraq," he declared in a 40-minute address to a joint session of Congress. "It's a tough struggle with setbacks, but we are succeeding."

In his speech and later at a White House news conference with President Bush, Allawi repeatedly characterized the fight in Iraq as part of a larger, global war against international terrorism. He paid tribute to the more than 1,000 uniformed Americans who have died since the March 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

"Thank you, America," Allawi said.

He insisted that the conflict in Iraq was also America's fight and said it was vital that the U.S. not waver in its commitment to end the insurgency and establish democracy. Allawi pledged to hold national elections as scheduled in January, though they would probably be imperfect and marred by violence.

"We are fighting for freedom and democracy -- ours and yours," he said. "For the struggle in Iraq today is not about the future of Iraq only, it's about the worldwide war between those who want to live in peace and freedom, and terrorists, terrorists who strike indiscriminately at soldiers, at civilians, as they did so tragically on 9/11 in America."

As in other public appearances, Allawi's upbeat remarks Thursday echoed -- both in tone and content -- key themes of Bush's reelection campaign. He spoke on a day that U.S. forces attacked a Baghdad slum, stronghold of a radical cleric who has fought the American military presence. The remarks also came during an especially deadly month, in which more than 60 U.S. service personnel have been killed. More than 300 Iraqi civilians have been slain since last week, and two U.S. civilian hostages were beheaded this week by militants who distributed videotapes of the killings.

The speech and White House visit Thursday marked the high point of Allawi's weeklong visit to the United States, his first since taking over as interim prime minister in June. Allawi praised the efforts of the Iraqi and allied troops to establish stability and said that training measures would help expand his nation's security forces. He also said that social programs, including schooling and polio vaccinations, were signs of a society returning to normality in many areas.

The justification for the invasion of Iraq and the current strategy to end the turmoil have become central issues in the heated battle between Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic presidential challenger. Kerry has called the invasion a mistake and has accused the president of mishandling the reconstruction.

Kerry reacted swiftly to the speech, saying that Allawi and Bush offered an overly sunny view that misled the American people. "The prime minister and the president are here, obviously, to put their best face on the policy," Kerry said in brief remarks while campaigning in Columbus, Ohio. "But the fact is that CIA estimates, the reporting, the ground operations and the troops all tell a different story."

Although Bush's opponents and some leading Republican members of Congress have grown skeptical of the president's upbeat assessment of events in Iraq, Allawi's optimism Thursday went further than the president's.

Describing the insurgents as a "tiny minority" composed of former Hussein loyalists, religious fanatics and foreigners, the Iraqi leader pledged that the country's national elections would be held as scheduled in January despite the violence that most independent observers in Iraq believe is escalating.

He charged that the media focused disproportionately on the unrest in Iraq, that "doubters" and "skeptics" were "fueling the hopes of the terrorists," and that most of the country was peaceful and safe enough to conduct elections now.

"Elections will occur in Iraq, on time in January, because Iraqis want elections on time," he said. "There would be no greater success for the terrorists if we delay and no greater blow when the elections take place, as they will, on schedule."

Although he acknowledged that the elections would be beset by problems, he said the vote would be "a giant step forward in Iraq's political evolution."

The Bush administration left the shape of the elections uncertain Thursday, with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld testifying on Capitol Hill that balloting should not be delayed, even if it meant forgoing votes in parts of the country under insurgent control.

"Let's say you tried to have an election, and you could have it in three-quarters or four-fifths of the country, but some places, you couldn't, because the violence was too great," Rumsfeld said. "So be it. Nothing's perfect in life. So you have an election that's not quite perfect. Is it better than not having an election? You bet."

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