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Iraqi Interim PM  Addresses Joint Meeting of US Congress Thursday - 2004-09-22

The interim prime minister of Iraq, Iyad Allawi, addresses a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress Thursday. His speech to U.S. lawmakers comes amid heightened concern about continuing violence in Iraq, and casualties among U.S. troops, four months before the Iraqi people are due to go to the polls in the country's first election since the ouster of Saddam Hussein.

Mr. Allawi stepped into the most difficult and perhaps dangerous job in Iraq last July after he was unanimously chosen as interim prime minister by Iraq's Governing Council.

Since taking office, he has received both criticism and praise for his tough stance against insurgents attempting to stop Iraq's transition to Democracy.

A neurologist by training, Mr. Allawi is 59-years-old, a Muslim from one of Iraq's prominent Shia families. After falling out with Saddam Hussein and the then ruling Baath party in the 1970s, he went into exile in Britain, becoming one of the staunchest opponents of the Iraqi dictator and co-founding a key exile group called the Iraqi National Accord.

Some critics seized on the fact that the group enjoyed strong support from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), saying this should have disqualified him from occupying such a crucial position.

While in Britain in the 1970s, Mr. Allawi survived an assassination attempt thought to have been carried out by agents of the Saddam Hussein regime. In 1996, his exile organization backed an unsuccessful coup attempt against Saddam Hussein.

However, the Bush administration has strongly backed Mr. Allawi, with President Bush himself describing him as one of many patriotic Iraqis committed to a free Iraq.

Reacting to the latest kidnappings and beheadings of foreign workers in Iraq, Mr. Allawi's response matched that of the Bush administration, that there would be no negotiation with terrorists.

Mr. Allawi's tough stance against insurgents who have continued to attack U.S. and coalition forces provoked negative reactions from some members of the interim government.

However, in the view of many observers, his background as a former Baath party member turned opponent of Saddam Hussein, provides him with a strong basis for leadership, while his hard line approach against insurgents appeals to many Iraqis weary of continuing violence.

Mr. Allawi's speech to Congress, to be followed by a meeting with President Bush at the White House, comes amid mounting concern about the ability of his government to hold an election as planned in January. Mr. Allawi says the election will go ahead.

Two U.S. lawmakers who will be listening to Mr. Allawi's address to Congress are Republicans Fred Upton and George Radanovich, who have just returned from Iraq.

"It is so imperative that those elections happen in January, to send a clear signal to all of the Iraqis that, in fact, they will be able to govern and we are giving them the chance to look for democracy. It's a critical piece of what we all came back with," said Mr. Upton.

"The sooner that the Iraqi people get the Iraqi national guard and the police force built up to strength is when they are going to be effective in dealing with the violence in their own country, but there was no evidence that any of the violence that was occurring was getting in the way [or] or preventing an election in January or the troop buildups," Mr. Radanovich said.

Mr. Allawi is the fourth foreign leader since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in early 2003 to receive the honor of addressing a joint meeting of Congress.

The others are British Prime Minister Tony Blair, former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, and Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai.