WASHINGTON – Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi (search) had one big message to deliver from his people to the people of the United States: "Thank you, America."
The interim prime minister on Thursday first addressed a joint meeting of Congress and then met with President Bush (search) at the White House. The two leaders maintained that, despite the doubters, progress is in fact being made in Iraq.
Allawi was staunch in saying there's no way the first free elections for Iraq, scheduled for January, will be derailed, despite critics' doubts. But later on Thursday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said parts of the country may be excluded from the historic vote.
Rumsfeld, at a Senate committee, was asked how elections could be held if Fallujah and other restive cities remained in revolt when U.N.-supervised elections are to be held nationwide.
"So be it," Rumsfeld said. He said "it could be" that violence in Iraq will be worse by January. The result, he said, would be "an election that's not quite perfect." But he said that some balloting would be better than none at all.
Allawi, a 59-year-old trained neurologist who lived for years in exile from Saddam Hussein (search) and has survived numerous assassination attempts, said democracy is beginning to flourish in parts of Iraq, and that the growing insurgent attacks do not mean that the guerrillas are gaining the upper hand, but rather that they are becoming more desperate.
Appearing with Allawi later in the White House Rose Garden, Bush applauded the Iraqi leader's leadership and courage.
"Mr. Prime Minister, you've accomplished a great deal … these have been months of steady progress despite persistent violence in some parts of your country," Bush said.
"The enemies of freedom are using suicide bombings, beheadings and other horrific acts to try to block progress. We're sickened by the atrocities, but we'll never be intimidated and freedom is winning … America's security and Iraq's future depend on it."
"As friends of liberty, the new leaders of Iraq are friends of America and all civilized nations."
Warning that violence likely will escalate as the January elections in Iraq near, Bush vowed that the United States would remain resolute in its mission.
"If we stop fighting the terrorism in Iraq, they would be free to plot and plan attacks elsewhere — in America and other free nations. To retreat now would to betray our mission, our word and our friends," Bush said.
The commander in chief emphasized that to back down in the face of terrorist threats would be a signal to the terrorists and the world that Iraq — and America — can be intimidated.
"Because Iraq and America and the coalition are standing firm, the Iraqi people and not the terrorists will determine Iraq's future. There's much at stake," Bush said. "The war in Iraq is not only an Iraqi war, it is a war for the civilized world to fight terrorists and terrorism ... Iraq is a central front in the War on Terror and our only option is victory."
Kerry: Rosy Picture of Iraq
Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (search), Bush's Democratic opponent in the race for the White House, held a press briefing to counter that picture of Iraq being painted.
"The United States and the Iraqis have retreated from whole areas of Iraq," Kerry told reporters outside a Columbus firehouse, calling Iraq a "magnet for terrorism." "There are no-go zones in Iraq today. You can't hold an election in a no-go zone."
But Allawi said that 14 to 15 out of Iraq's 18 provinces are "completely safe," and there are only three provinces that contain "pockets of insurgents, pockets of terrorists who are acting there and are moving to inflict damage elsewhere in the country."
Allawi also stressed the need for the international community, despite the terrorist violence against coalition partners in Iraq, to stand its ground in its mission there and to not negotiate with the killers.
"I know the pain this has caused, I know it's difficult, but the coalition must stand firm," he said, receiving a standing ovation. "When governments negotiate with terrorists, everyone in the free world suffers … working together, we will defeat the killers and we will do this while refusing to bargain with our most fundamental principles."
And because of the help the United States has given in getting Iraq on its feet, the Middle Eastern country will never forget its friend in the West, the prime minister vowed.
"For the first time in history, the Iraqi people can look forward to controlling our own destiny. This would not have been possible without the help and sacrifices of this country and its coalition partners. I thank you again from the bottom of my heart," Allawi said.
"Neither tyranny nor terrorism has a place in our region or our world. That is why we Iraqis will stand by you, America ... in the global battle for freedom."
'Thank You, America'
Allawi had important messages for America, one being: "We are succeeding in Iraq," which received a resounding round of applause from lawmakers gathered in the House chamber.
"Every day we grow in strength and determination to defeat the terrorists and their barbarism," Allawi said, referring to the beheadings this week of two Americans.
"As we mourn these losses, we must not forget the progress we are making … we are fighting for freedom and democracy, ours and yours."
Allawi's second message, delivered directly from his people to all Americans, was:
"Thank you, America."
"We Iraqis know that Americans have made and continue to make enormous sacrifices to liberate Iraq, to assure Iraq's freedom," the prime minister said. "I have come here to thank you and to promise you that your sacrifices are not in vain."
He added that the "overwhelming majority" of Iraqis are grateful to be rid of Saddam and to build a better future. The others represent a "tiny minority" of the population "who will kill anyone, destroy anything to prevent Iraq and its people from achieving its goal."
But Iraqis will not be swayed, Allawi vowed.
"These killers may be just a tiny fraction of our 27 million population, but with their guns and their suicide bombs, to intimidate and frighten the people of Iraq — I can tell you today, they will not succeed," he added. "These murderers have no political program or cause other than to push our country back to tyranny."
Allawi noted that despite opposition to the Iraq invasion from major U.N. member countries, the United States forged ahead with its mission to depose of a ruthless dictator that ruled Iraq with an iron fist, and Iraq is grateful for it.
"My friends, today we are better off, you are better off and the world is better off, without Saddam Hussein," Allawi said. "Your decision to go into Iraq was not an easy one, but it was the right one."
Bush took another indirect shot at Kerry in his Rose Garden appearance with Allawi on Thursday, echoing a recent theme that the president of the United States should not waffle in how he wages the War on Terror, in Iraq or elsewhere.
"I understand what mixed messages do; you can embolden an enemy by sending mixed messages … you send the wrong message to our troops when you send mixed messages," Bush said.
"We're an influential nation ... I think it's very important for the American president to mean what he says … I don't want them [terrorists] to be emboldened by any confusion or doubt … they've been emboldened before, they have caused certain nations to withdraw from coalitions as a result of their actions," Bush said, referring to Spain's withdrawal from the coalition after terrorists bombed commuter trains there and Spaniards elected a new prime minister.
Kerry said Allawi was sent before Congress to put the "best face" on a Bush administration policy that has gone wrong.
"The prime minister and the president 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."
After later meeting with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and other lawmakers in the afternoon, Allawi once again stressed the need for solidarity within the coalition.
"It's a global issue we are facing, global terrorists who are trying to undermine us and undermine the region in order to hurt civilization throughout the globe ... so this fight really is the fight of us all," Allawi said.
"As we proceed to move forward ... to have elections next year in January, we are going to deal yet another blow to terrorists and insurgents around the globe because the enemy of terrorism is democracy, is the rule of law and is the respect for human rights — and this is what we hope to achieve in Iraq."
While Allawi's comments were welcomed by lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle, Democrats were quick to say that Bush's leadership shortcomings have made the situation in Iraq worse.
Allawi's "challenge in governing and stabilizing Iraq is enormous," Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., said in a statement. "That challenge has been made far more difficult by the continual mistakes and persistent miscalculations of the Bush administration."
Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., said January elections are "far from assured ... the actions the president takes over the next three to four weeks will determine whether it's reasonable."
"In order to get the election held successfully and legitimately, the U.N. has to be in to set up the places," Biden added. "They're not sending people in ... because they don't have the security to protect the people. How are you going to have a legitimate election? It is still possible ... but we need a plan, and I haven't seen one."
FOX News' Julie Asher and the Associated Press contributed to this report.