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The Arab World Watches Maliki's U.S. Visit

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

How might the Maliki visit to Washington play back home in Iraq or, for that matter, in other Arab countries? Well, Nadia Bilbassy is senior correspondent for the Al-Arabiya television, which is based in Dubai. It's watched by a great many Iraqis. She's based here in Washington. Welcome.

NADIA BILBASSY: Thank you.

SIEGEL: You filed your story on the speech to the joint session of Congress today. How did you describe it to viewers back home?

BILBASSY: Well, I think first of all it was a general speech. There was nothing that really makes someone wonder if there's anything new. He talks about fighting terrorism. He talks about making Iraq safe. He talks about American troops have to stay until the job is done with training the Iraqi forces.

One thing I think that attracted my attention, he said about his reconciliation program, or project actually, that has been controversial, which is allowing armed groups to be part of a dialogue. And he said if you interpret that as a weakness, you are mistaken. We want to do it because we are determined that Iraq has to have some kind of a national reconciliation process.

The other thing that actually he said was, when he talked about the militia.

SIEGEL: The great danger to the country, he says, yes.

BILBASSY: Exactly. He was talking about disarming the militias and he said regardless of where they come from and who they are. And of course he's referring now to the Shiite militias.

And I described his speech to the Congress in this dimension, but also the most controversial thing is the Democrats threatening to walk out from his speech, criticizing him for basically saying that Israeli aggression on Lebanon has to stop and for not condemning Hezbollah. I actually led with the story that they threatened to boycott him even before he came to Congress, but he walks in. They stayed, but we don't know what's going to happen.

SIEGEL: How do you think this will sound and appear to Iraqi news consumers back home? Has Prime Minister Maliki sounded independent and like the leader of a relatively strong independent state or is he coming to tell Americans what they want to hear?

BILBASSY: Well actually that's the difference between all the Iraqi Prime Ministers and presidents that I have covered in the last three years that we have seen in coming to Washington. He'd been seen really as independent. The administration, yesterday some sources were trying to tell me that they describe it as a healthy democracy. If you disagree with us, that's fine, because Israel is our strategic ally and you can have a point of difference here.

But the fact that he comes and speaks, strongly actually, against - what do you call it - Israeli aggression and he's calling for a cease-fire. It's a different point of view and it's playing well back home.

SIEGEL: That plays well, the fact that he may be criticized by Americans for seeming to support Hezbollah might indeed be read by Iraqis as a sign that he's not under American control at this point.

BILBASSY: Absolutely, because, you know, the criticism not just in Iraq but all over the Arab world that any Iraqi government's going to be a puppet of the American administration. And some even - we know before he came that he went to the U.S. for political reasons. We know that Congress is having election in November. The administration wants to give a rosy picture of what's happening in Iraq. There is progress, yes. There is problems, but there's progress, and here you can come and hear it from the Prime Minister himself.

And actually, if you saw yesterday the press conference at the White House, the body language wasn't really there. I mean, the president was a little bit not in his usual self, if you wanted to say. So I don't think necessarily they were seeing eye to eye and the fact that the president used the word frank to describe the discussion means there were disagreements.

SIEGEL: That there was disagreement and that would add to the credibility of the Prime Minister with Arab audiences, that there's some disagreement.

BILBASSY: Absolutely.

SIEGEL: I'm curious about one thing you said, that Prime Minister al-Maliki, the way in which he has behaved here is different from previous Iraqi leaders over the past three years that you've been based in Washington, as you've seen them come through town. There's something qualitatively different about this visit.

BILBASSY: There is something different. I mean, this man has to assert himself. He has to prove that he can lead Iraq, and a future democratic Iraqi state, a stable one, but he has to be credible in the eyes of the Iraqis before in the eyes of the Americans. He's very thankful for the Americans and we saw a little bit of complimentary sentences, etcetera, but generally speaking, yes, he has his own point of view and I think he said it loudly.

But now, this is coming on top of what's happening in Lebanon. Don't forget he's a Shiite. And I heard some of my colleagues in the White House trying to press him, what is your relationship with Hezbollah? You know, can you condemn them, etcetera?

It's very difficult for him to condemn Hezbollah. It's the same for any other leader in the region. So it's fine for the Americans to characterize them as a terrorist organization, the same for Hamas. But on the ground, in the Arab streets, in the Arab capitals in the bigger Muslim world, they're not a terrorist group. They are seen as a legitimate resistance group that are there because of the occupation. If there is no occupation, there is no resistance.

SIEGEL: So to expect Prime Minister Maliki to share the American view of what's happening there would be to ask him to lose credibility with Iraqis back home.

BILBASSY: Absolutely.

SIEGEL: Well, Nadia Bilbassy, thank you very much for talking with us today.

BILBASSY: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: Nadia Bilbassy is senior correspondent for Al-Arabiya Television satellite television channel, viewed by a great many Iraqis and others throughout the Arab world, and she is based here in Washington, D.C.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And you can read the full transcript of Maliki's address to Congress at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.