- The Washington Times - Friday, September 24, 2004

Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, addressing a joint session of Congress, yesterday thanked America “from the bottom of my heart” and said Iraq, the United States and the world were better off because of the war to oust Saddam Hussein.

The head of Iraq’s interim government told lawmakers that 15 of Iraq’s 18 provinces could hold democratic elections “tomorrow,” and vowed to hold the vote by the end of January despite a continuing campaign of violence against the government and the U.S.-led military coalition.

“Thank you, America,” Mr. Allawi told a nearly packed House chamber during a 40-minute address delivered in English. “I assure you the sacrifices were not made in vain.”

He added, “For the first time in our history, the Iraqi people can look forward to controlling our own destiny. … I thank you again from the bottom of my heart.”

Mr. Allawi’s address amounted to a ringing endorsement of President Bush’s Iraq policy, bringing repeated, enthusiastic ovations from Republican lawmakers and an immediate dissent from Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry.

Campaigning in Ohio, the Massachusetts Democrat told reporters that the Iraqi leader had been recruited to minimize what he said were the glaring failures of Mr. Bush’s Iraq policy.

“The prime minister and [Mr. Bush] are here obviously to put their best face on the policy, but the fact is that the CIA estimates, the reporting, the ground operations and the troops all tell a different story,” Mr. Kerry said

“The United States and the Iraqis have retreated from whole areas of Iraq. There are no-go zones in Iraq today. You can’t hold an election in a no-go zone.”

Mr. Bush, appearing with Mr. Allawi at a Rose Garden press conference after the congressional address, strongly backed the Iraqi prime minister and said he was determined to show the terrorists in Iraq and friends and foes around the globe that the United States would stand firm.

“The fundamental question is: Are we going to allow the tough work to cause us to retreat, to waver?” Mr. Bush said.

The president accused Mr. Kerry of sending “mixed signals” abroad with shifting positions on Iraq that could embolden U.S. enemies.

“My message is that we will stay the course and stand with these people so that they become free. It’s in our national interest,” Mr. Bush said.

He added that surveys he had seen indicated Iraqis are more optimistic than Americans.

“I saw a poll that said the right track/wrong track [survey] in Iraq was better than here in America,” Mr. Bush said. “It’s pretty darn strong. I mean, the people see a better future.”

The president’s assertion that Iraqis are more optimistic about their future than Americans was greeted with incredulity by the Kerry campaign.

“Did President Bush really just say this?” said Kerry campaign spokesman Phil Singer.

As if anticipating the stir such a comment might cause, Mr. Bush ribbed the press at another point in his question-and-answer session.

“I’m not suggesting any of the reporters here might be taking something out of context. That would never happen in America,” he said sarcastically.

Vice President Dick Cheney, campaigning in St. Joseph, Mo., sharply criticized Mr. Kerry for his dismissal of the Iraqi leader’s speech.

“I was appalled at the complete lack of respect Senator Kerry showed for this man of courage when he rushed out to hold a press conference and attack the prime minister, the man America must stand with to defeat the terrorists,” Mr. Cheney said.

Mr. Allawi in his congressional address embraced many of the administration’s main arguments on Iraq.

He said Iraq was a critical battleground in the larger global war on terror, that the Western media had overlooked real progress being made in Iraq, and that the international community must stand firm against a “tiny minority” trying to undermine the government through violence.

Congressional Republicans packed their side of the House chamber, but the applause from many Democratic lawmakers was noticeably more restrained. Congressional staffers and pages were recruited to fill rows of empty seats on the Democratic side of the chamber.

Sen. John Ensign, Nevada Republican, praised Mr. Allawi’s “wonderful speech,” but Rep. James P. Moran, Virginia Democrat, told the Associated Press that “some remarked that it sounded like the State Department wrote his speech.”

Both Democrats and Republicans lined the aisle to congratulate Mr. Allawi after his talk. He shared a warm greeting with Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, a prime supporter of the war, kissing Mr. Wolfowitz on both cheeks.

Mr. Allawi, who told lawmakers he receives almost daily death threats, said Iraq’s interim leaders had defied skeptics this year in drafting a constitution in January, in managing the June transfer of sovereignty, and in convening a national conference on the future government in August.

January’s planned local and national elections are the “next major milestone” for Iraq’s democracy, he said.

“I know that some have speculated, even doubted, whether this date can be met. So let me be absolutely clear,” Mr. Allawi said. “Elections will occur in Iraq, on time in January, because Iraqis want elections on time.”

He said the security situation was stable enough that elections “could be held tomorrow” in 15 of Iraq’s 18 provinces, with the government lacking full control only in areas of the restive Sunni Muslim belt north and west of Baghdad.

“There will be no greater blow to the terrorists than when elections take place,” he said.

Last night, at a Council on Foreign Relations gathering, Mr. Allawi said he wanted to clear things up with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan after the U.N. leader had expressed some doubts over the elections scheduled to take place in Iraq in January 2005.

“I am expecting an explanation from him tomorrow,” Mr. Allawi said.

He also responded sharply to suggestions that he was being used by U.S. politicians on the eve of the Nov. 2 presidential election.

“I am a tool of no man. I am a tool of nobody,” he said. “I did not come here to get involved in the internal politics of the United States. That is not our business.”

The prime minister added that he expected to meet with the foreign minister of Iran today while in New York, and speak with him on working toward peace in the region, similar to his recent agreements with Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Sharon Behn contributed to this report.

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