Iraqi Leader Tries to Reassure Congress About Hezbollah

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki addressed a session of Congress Wednesday despite the absence of a couple boycotting Democrats.

Sens. Charles Schumer of New York and Barbara Boxer of California both did not attend the joint meeting of Congress to make a point of showing disapproval of al-Maliki's remarks on the conflict between Israel and terror group Hezbollah and his ongoing reliance on U.S. soldiers to quell a simmering internal war in Iraq.

"Maliki did not denounce Hezbollah, a terrorist organization or repudiate amnesty for Iraqis who killed Americans soldiers. Therefore, I won't be attending,” Schumer said.

"I am not ready to honor Prime Minister al-Maliki in the chamber of the House of Representatives until I have some very serious questions answered by him," Boxer said in a statement. "When will he be able to take over the security of his own country so that American soldiers may leave?

Nine of the 19 House Democrats who signed a letter asking to cancel the speech did not attend.

Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., who did not attend, said al-Maliki did not address his concerns.

"We kept pressing and he kept sidestepping," Ackerman said in a statement. "He refused to say the things we needed him to say."

Al-Maliki spoke to the body as he tried to gain support for the U.S. military commitment in Iraq. His appearance came during his first trip to Washington since becoming prime minister two months ago.

Prior to the speech, he attended a congressional breakfast hosted by House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who welcomed the prime minister after rejecting calls Tuesday by congressional Democrats to cancel his address.

“We're very honored today to have the Iraqi prime minister with us,” said Hastert, R-Ill.

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Some critics say al-Maliki’s comments on the Israel-Hezbollah conflict do not align with U.S. foreign policy goals, though he seems to put that hesitation to rest for many during a morning breakfast with lawmakers.

Al-Maliki, a Shiite Muslim, was quoted in The New York Times and other publications as saying Israel was the aggressor in the Mideast conflict with Hezbollah, the Iranian- and Syrian-backed terror group that has been launching rockets from southern Lebanon. The ongoing conflict began 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.”

During breakfast with congressional leaders Wednesday, al-Maliki said he didn’t support any terrorist group. He repeated that statement during his speech.

But Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., speaking after the address, said he asked al-Maliki directly if he believes Hezbollah is a terrorist organization, and the prime minister wouldn't respond, and furthermore, questioned Durbin's right to ask him the question.

"I said, you raised criticism of Israel in this conflict, I think it is logical, it is reasonable to ask him what is your impression of their enemy in this struggle, Hezbollah. He still refused to reply to that," Durbin said.

Durbin also brought up comments by Iraqi Parliament Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, who was quoted last week saying that Jews are to blame for all of Iraq's problems.

Durbin said Mashhadani said "outrageous things, not only about Israel and Jewish people, but even about America.

"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," he added.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid told FOX News that while al-Maliki didn't directly denounce Hezbollah to members, his aides said Iraq joined Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt in condemning the terrorist group at a recent Arab League meeting.

"They said they did not support Hezbollah," said Reid of Nevada. Asked if he was satisfied with the comments, Reid said, "It was helpful."

Some members of Congress did not go to al-Maliki’s speech because they attended hearings that could not be canceled. A Senate Judiciary Committee hearing held by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., for example, focused on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and National Security Agency issues with CIA Director Michael Hayden and NSA Chief Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander. Democratic vice-chairman Patrick Leahy also skipped the speech to attend the hearing.

The White House said it would be Democrats’ loss to boycott al-Maliki’s speech.

"Let me try to explain democracy to the people on Capitol Hill. It involves free speech ... The president is not a puppeteer,” said White House spokesman Tony Snow. The speech will offer “a lot of Americans want to hear and need to hear. If they (Democrats) want to sit it out, it's their loss," he added.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who did attend, told FOX News before the speech that it was focused on moving forward in Iraq, not al-Maliki's comments about the Mideast turmoil.

“I don’t think his comments personally were very balanced in terms of his comments, vis-a-vis Israel and Lebanon, so I'm sure we will talk about that,” said Frist, R-Tenn. “I can't believe the Democrats would not show up for either our meetings this morning or, as has been suggested by them, not come to the address to the United States Congress.”

Frist met with al-Maliki to get a preview of what the prime minister will talk about.

“He is an ally to us in the War on Terror in Iraq, and that’s where we’re going to continue our focus,” Frist said.

House Democrats sent a letter to Hastert earlier this week asking him to cancel the address. But Hastert refused, telling reporters that al-Maliki “should address Congress. ... The U.S. has 130,000 troops [in Iraq] and Washington must maintain a dialogue with the Iraqi government.”

Bush and al-Maliki were to have lunch with military personnel and families at Ft. Belvoir Army Base in Virginia later Wednesday.

On Tuesday, Bush and al-Maliki spoke to reporters about the importance of boosting security in Baghdad. Al-Maliki asked Bush for more military equipment and additional U.S. and Iraqi forces.

“Obviously, the violence in Baghdad is still terrible and therefore, there needs to be more troops,” Bush said.

FOX News' Wendell Goler and Trish Turner contributed to this report.