WASHINGTON – House Speaker Dennis Hastert has rejected calls Tuesday by congressional Democrats to cancel an address Wednesday by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to a joint session of Congress.
Hastert, R-Ill., told reporters that even if al-Maliki doesn't apologize for earlier comments condemning Israel for its assault on Hezbollah terrorist targets in Lebanon, the prime minister "should address Congress. ... The U.S. has 130,000 troops [in Iraq]" and Washington must maintain a dialogue with the Iraqi government.
Al-Maliki's comments will "be part of that dialogue ... and we should all, on a bipartisan basis, be there to engage him."
Al-Maliki, a Shiite Muslim, was quoted in The New York Times and elsewhere calling Israel the aggressor in the conflict with Hezbollah, the Iranian- and Syrian-backed terror group that has been launching rockets at Israel from civilian communities in southern Lebanon. The latest armed conflict began nearly two weeks ago when Hezbollah terrorists crossed the northern Israeli border, kidnapped two soldiers and killed three others.
"The Israeli attacks and airstrikes are completely destroying Lebanon’s infrastructure,” al-Maliki is quoted in the paper as saying last Wednesday during a news conference in Baghdad. “I condemn these aggressions and call on the Arab League foreign ministers’ meeting in Cairo to take quick action to stop these aggressions. We call on the world to take quick stands to stop the Israeli aggression.”
House Democrats on Monday crafted a letter to Hastert urging him to cancel the speech by al-Maliki to the chamber. The letter, which was being circulated for signatures, argues that if the Iraqi leader's positions are at odds with U.S. foreign policy goals then he should not be given the honor of giving an address from the speaker's podium.
"In recent months there have been extensive reports indicating that al-Maliki and many in the Iraqi leadership are increasingly influenced by the government in Iran. Further, they have expressed support of terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah, the latter of which was responsible for the death of 241 United States Marines in Beirut. The House should not allow an address from any world leader who has taken such action," the letter reads.
"We are unaware of any prior instance where a world leader who actively worked against the interests of the United States was afforded such an honor. We urge you to cancel the address," the letter concludes.
On Tuesday, asked specifically about his remarks, al-Maliki did not answer a question about his position on Hezbollah.
"We are not in the process of reviewing one issue or another or any government position," Maliki said. "What we're trying to do is to stop the killing and destruction and then we leave the room and the way for the international and diplomatic efforts and international organizations to play the role to be there.
"I'm talking here about the approach that should be used in order to stop this process of promoting hatred. There has to be superior decisions coming from above in order to protect these experiments, particularly democratic experiments, that should be protected by those who are trying to oppose it," he added.
In response, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said that al-Maliki's failure to retreat from his comments on Israel or to criticize Hezbollah and Hamas, the terror group elected to lead the Palestinian people, is unacceptable.
"Unless Mr. Maliki disavows his critical comments of Israel and condemns terrorism, it is inappropriate to honor him with a joint meeting of Congress," Pelosi, D-Calif., said.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Pelosi's comments undermine U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
"The House Democrat Leader and some of her Democrat colleagues may not agree with the liberation of Iraq and they may not agree with criticism by some against Israel's actions but their continued efforts to undermine the advancement of freedom and democracy in Iraq is shameful," he said.
Criticism of al-Maliki's comments condemning Israel and calling on the "world to take quick stands to stop the Israeli aggression" appear to be breaking down along party lines in Congress.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada was joined by Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin Tuesday in revealing a letter to al-Maliki asking him to denounce Hezbollah.
"Your statements are very troubling. Your failure to condemn Hezbollah's aggression and recognize Israel's right to defend itself raise serious questions about whether Iraq under your leadership can play a constructive role in resolving the current crisis and bringing stability to the Middle East," the letter reads. "It is imperative that the U.S. Congress and the world know immediately whether you support or condemn Hezbollah's acts of terrorism."
"Addressing a joint session of Congress and standing at the speaker's podium is a high honor. It has been bestowed upon those who have embraced fundamental values of liberty and freedom," Reid said.
Schumer and Durbin stopped short of saying they would boycott the joint address to Congress, indicated they would strongly consider not attending.
Reid said he would likely attend since he is the Democratic leader of the Senate, but it is a "matter for each senator" to decide whether to attend. Durbin and Schumer agreed, adding that the term "boycott" suggested an organized effort when in fact senators will make a personal decision whether to attend.
Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., called the prime minister's remarks "outrageous." But later in the day, she said she planned to attend the speech.
"I will attend tomorrow's joint session in order to hear Prime Minister Maliki's assessment of the path forward in Iraq, hopeful that he will clarify his comments during that session and reiterate his determination to defeat terrorism in Iraq and throughout the region," Clinton said.
James Zogby, head of the Arab-American Institute, said al-Maliki's speech must be made.
“It is in the interest of the United States to have a leader in Iraq who will have standing among his people, and asking al-Maliki to repudiate his comments seriously erodes his ability to lead Iraq during these difficult times," Zogby said. "Canceling al-Maliki's speech would be seen as an insult in Iraq with potentially grave consequences. We should not be playing politics with 130,000 US troops at risk.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a staunch supporter of the Iraq war, took no umbrage with the remarks, saying, "People are free to voice their opinions. I hadn't really even thought much about it."
The Senate's No. 2 Republican, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said, "We're very happy he's here. We're looking forward to hearing from him."
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter is skipping the joint session, but not out of protest. He is attending a hearing on National Security Agency issues with CIA Director Michael Hayden and NSA Chief Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander.
Still, Specter said he has "serious reservations" about al-Maliki's appearance in front of the Congress because of his remarks, but he is not staking a position yet.
"I don't know the circumstances of his invitation, and I want to clarify that," he said. "I would like to know who invited him and what the reasons are. We have a lot of things we have to do with Iraq, so I don't want to take a position before" learning the decision for inviting him to speak.
FOX News' Trish Turner and Molly Hooper contributed to this report.