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Visiting Iraqi Prime Minister Thanks U.S.

23 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Despite continuing bloodshed in Iraq, the country's interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi, arrived in Washington today to thank the United States for ousting Saddam Hussein and helping to work toward establishing democracy in his country.

In an address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress, Allawi acknowledged that the job will be difficult, but he said Iraqis have the strength to succeed.

With three simple words, Allawi brought members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives to their feet: "Thank you, America."

Allawi said his gratitude was justified. He contended that despite the ongoing violence, Iraq is slowly moving toward stability and democracy -- with national elections scheduled for January.

Skeptics are less sure. Insurgents still hold large areas of Iraq, exact casualties among U.S. troops, and kidnap and kill foreign civilians. Meanwhile, thousands of Iraqi civilians have been killed in suicide attacks or in the crossfire between U.S. forces and insurgents.
"Let me be absolutely clear: Elections will occur in Iraq on time in January because Iraqis want elections on time." -- Iyad Allawi

But Allawi said he believes the worst is over: "My friends, today we are better off, you are better off, and the world is better off without Saddam Hussein."

In a recently leaked report, U.S. intelligence officials were less confident about Iraq's future, saying it ranges from civil war to a struggling, fractured democracy at best.

Allawi sought to address critics who question his and U.S. President George W. Bush's plan to stabilize Iraq. He said every time skeptics have questioned progress in Iraq, they have been proven wrong.

As examples, he cited last January's deadline for Iraqis to draft a constitution, last June's deadline for an interim government, and last month's national political conference.

Each time, Allawi said, Iraqis met their goals. And because of what he called Iraqis' "courage and resilience," Allawi predicted the skeptics' losing streak would continue.

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

Allawi conceded that the elections might not be perfect. But he insisted they would be what he called "a giant step" toward establishing a well-functioning democracy.

At the same time, Allawi said he was working to bring together Iraqis of many different backgrounds to broaden popular opposition to the insurgency.

Members of Congress are divided over the U.S. war in Iraq. Even some leading senators from Bush's Republican Party have called on the president to be more candid about the situation there.

But those questions were set aside today as Congress warmly welcomed Allawi, often interrupting his address with applause and several times giving him a standing ovation.

After his address, Allawi went to the White House for a meeting with Bush.

After their meeting, Bush said Iraqi insurgents could plot attacks elsewhere if the United States and its coalition partners stopped fighting them.

Bush acknowledged that violence in Iraq might well escalate between now and January, but he said Iraq remains the central focus of the war on international terrorism and stressed there is no alternative to victory. And, said Bush if his top military commander in Iraq asks for more troops, he will listen to him.

"The insurgency in Iraq is disruptive but small, and it has not and will never resonate with the Iraqi people," Allawi told reporters at the White House. "Iraqi citizens know better than anyone the horrors of dictatorship. This is a past we will never revisit."

[For additional news, background, and analysis on events in Iraq, click here.]

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