WASHINGTON – Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki thanked a joint meeting of Congress Wednesday for its continued support as his government tries to take the lead in fighting terrorism and sectarian violence.
He also pledged that Iraq will stand by the United States as it tries to end terror regimes and spread freedom throughout the world.
"Iraqis are your allies in the War on Terror," al-Maliki told lawmakers from the speaker's podium in the House chamber. "The fate of our country and yours is tied. Should democracy be allowed to fail in Iraq and terror permitted to triumph, then the War on Terror will never be won elsewhere."
Al-Maliki addressed the body to shore up the U.S. military commitment there and win support for stopping a deadly insurgency that appears nowhere near ending its onslaught. He said proof of U.S. success to date can be demonstrated in the brief time it took for his country to go from dictatorship to a transitional administration to a fully-fledged democracy.
"Iraq will not forget those who stood with her and continue to stand with her in times of need," he said through a translator. "It is with great pleasure that I am able to take this opportunity to be the first democratically and constitutionally elected prime minister of Iraq to address you, the elected representatives of the American people."
"Thank you for your continued resolve in helping us fight the terrorists plaguing Iraq, which is struggling to defend our nascent democracy and our people who aspire to liberty, democracy, human rights and the rule of law. All of those are not western values, they are universal values for humanity," he continued.
But several minutes into his address, as he began speaking about the human sacrifices made for his country's turnaround, the prime minister was forced to suspend his remarks while a protester was removed from the chamber gallery. The individual, who was taken out by Capitol Police, shouted "Iraqis want the troops to leave! Bring them home now! Iraqis want the troops to leave! Bring them home now!" Al-Maliki paused and looked up into the balcony, but partly because he does not speak English, he just smiled wanly and waited to resume his speech.
Al-Maliki said he vows to disband the sectarian militias that are preventing his country from unifying, and told wary members that the War on Terror is not one of Islam versus the rest of the world, as it frequently seems when terrorists invoke the name of Allah to defend their actions.
"This is a battle between true Islam, for which a person's liberty and rights constitute essential cornerstones, and terrorism, which wraps itself in a fake Islamic cloak; in reality, waging a war on Islam and Muslims and values," he told the joint meeting of Congress
Beginning his speech with a typical Muslim introduction giving thanks to Allah, al-Maliki said that religious extremism will not be allowed to prevail over fundamental freedoms.
"Every human possesses inalienable rights which transcend religion. ... I believe these human rights are not an artifact construct reserved for the few. They are the divine entitlement for all," he said.
He also noted the progress that has taken place since Saddam Hussein was removed from power — the state-controlled media is now free and uncensored, the command economy is transforming into a free market economy, GDP per capita has doubled in three years, standards of living have been raised as the market economy takes over and legislation is soon to be considered to lift restrictions on foreign companies and investors in Iraq.
But none of the economic successes are certain as long as the fighting continues to disrupt reconstruction and human freedoms. To that end, al-Maliki met with President Bush on Tuesday, and the two announced that the United States will be helping out with additional equipment, firepower and boots on the ground to help continue the War on Terror being waged in Iraq.
Neither said 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.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said before the speech that Congress will be listening closely to al-Maliki's status report on events in Iraq as well as additional requests he may be seeking.
"Clearly, we will be looking at what's going to happen in the future, talk about the progress that has been made. And, indeed, right now the Iraqi security forces are up to 269,000, which is huge progress over the last six months," Frist told FOX News.
"So we'll look at what military progress needs to be made, security progress, obviously, economic progress and infrastructure, as well as focusing on the military itself — what we can do to continue to support building up the Iraqi security forces, so that eventually we will be able to come home," he added.
"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.
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.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he is not interested in bringing the troops home right away, and is concerned that not enough are in place there to put an end to the ongoing terrorist violence in Iraq.
"I have said for a long time, for many years I've said we needed more troops in Iraq. I worry about taking them out of the Anbar province where a lot of the insurgency is still very fierce and that concerns me, but there's no doubt the situation in Baghdad is very critical. The sectarian violence is way up. It's a very difficult situation," McCain said.
McCain added that the the Iraqi security forces are doing much better and the government is up and functioning, but the "failure right now is in police. We really have not made the progress that we should make in order to give law enforcement a chance in Baghdad and other places," he told FOX News.
Later in the day, when Bush and al-Maliki visited Fort Belvoir Army Base in Virginia, the prime minister expressed gratitude for the sacrifices made by the U.S. military, which has lost about 2,570 service men and women since fighting began in March 2003. He said he too has sacrificed in the battle for freedom.
"I sympathize with the families who have lost some loved ones. And I appreciate this sacrifice and this suffering, because I am one of the people who sacrificed and suffered in Iraq. The previous regime had sentenced me to death, and actually has executed 67 members of my family, relatives. And I can feel the bitterness of the loss when someone loses a dear member of his family, a son, or a spouse," he said. "When blood mixes together in the field, aiming to achieve one goal, this blood will help in establishing a long-lasting relationship between us."
Declining to address the numbers of U.S. military and equipment that will be needed to wipe out terrorism, al-Maliki instead made a financial plea to Congress, saying that reconstruction and economic progress will weaken terror factions because individuals will have other productive avenues to pursue.
"Members of the Congress, in this effort, we need your help. We need the help of the international community. Much of the budget you had allocated for Iraq's reconstruction ended up paying for security firms and foreign companies, whose operating costs were vast. Instead, there needs to be a greater reliance on Iraqis and Iraqi companies, with foreign aid and assistance to help us rebuild Iraq," he said.
That made little impression on Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., who reluctantly agreed that more money will need to be given to give "vitality to their civilian sectors, their economy, their political institutions."
"In some cases, I think the prime minister was speaking in the style more of the president of the Baghdad Chamber of Commerce than of the prime minister of Iraq," Reed said, adding that the financial commitment cannot be just from the United States.
"We have to stand up and make sure, first, we get the world community to contribute the billions of dollars they pledged years ago ... Then we have to realistically provide help and resources within a very constrained budget."
Prior to his speech, he arrived on Capitol Hill for breakfast with congressional leaders. As he prepared to address Congress, some House and Senate Democrats said they were planning on skipping the speech to protest the prime minister's comments 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. At the White House news conference on Tuesday, he also sidestepped a direct question about his position on Hezbollah, the Iranian and Syrian-backed terror group that has been launching rockets at Israel from civilian communities in southern Lebanon.
"We're talking about the suffering of a people," al-Maliki said of the local residents who have been caught in the crossfire. "We are not in the process of reviewing one issue or another or any government position ... What we're trying to do is to stop the killing and destruction and then we leave the room and the way is open for the international and diplomatic efforts and international organizations to play their role there.
During breakfast Wednesday, al-Maliki and his aides told congressional members that at a recent Arab League meeting, Iraq joined Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia in condemning Hezbollah. But he did not speak to the matter during his address to Congress.
"They said they did not support Hezbollah," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid reported after the breakfast. Asked if he was satisfied with the comments, Reid, D-Nev., said, "It was helpful."
But Durbin said he was disturbed that al-Maliki did not reject remarks by Iraqi Parliament Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, who was quoted last week saying that Jews are to blame for all of Iraq's problems.
"We understand as part of a democracy where we value free speech, people can have a difference of opinion, but to have a leader in the government so critical of the United States, which has given so much in defense of democracy in Iraq, is troubling, and our point in the breakfast, at least on the Democratic side of the table, is to make sure the prime minister of Iraq went home understanding that we were not only concerned, we were angry about some of the remarks that were made."
Warner said engaging al-Maliki's government was critical to achieving success in Iraq. He added that he has warned the Bush 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."
FOX News' Trish Turner, Sharon Kehnemui Liss and The Associated Press contributed to this report.