Iraqis blast US congressman's war repayment idea

AP News

6/12/2011 3:14:53 PM - AP News

The suggestion by a U.S. congressman that Iraq repay the United States for the money it has spent in the country has stirred anger, with an Iraqi lawmaker ridiculing the idea as "stupid" and others saying Iraqis should be compensated for the hardships they've endured.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican from California, suggested during a trip to Baghdad with fellow lawmakers Friday that once Iraq becomes a rich and prosperous country, it could repay the U.S.

That comment triggered outrage among an Iraqi public and political establishment that had little or no say in the U.S.-led invasion of 2003. Iraqis are largely glad to be rid of Saddam Hussein but blame the U.S. for the chaos and sectarian violence that followed the invasion.

"We as a government reject such statements, and we have informed the American embassy that these congressmen are not welcome in Iraq," said government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh on Sunday.

Al-Dabbagh said the government was also upset by comments from the six-member congressional delegation about an Iranian opposition group based in Iraq.

The American lawmakers came to Iraq to investigate the deaths of 34 members of the People's Mujahedeen Organization of Iran during an April 8 Iraqi army raid on the group's headquarters, known as Camp Ashraf.

The Iranian exiles were given refuge by Saddam, but have since become an irritant to Iraq's Shiite-led government, which has ties to Shiite power Iran and would like to see the group gone.

But it was Rohrabacher's comments about repayment that resonated most with Iraqis who have suffered through years of war.

The head of the Iraqi parliament's foreign affairs committee, Humam Hmoudi, called his comments "stupid" and said it is the Iraqi people who should be demanding compensation.

"This provokes us and the Iraqi people as well to demand compensations for losses Iraq suffered during the invasion," he said.

Another lawmaker from one of the main political blocs, Etab al-Douri, called the repayment idea a "humiliation."

"We are the ones who should ask for compensation and not them, and we demand the occupiers to withdraw now," she said.

The blowup comes at a particularly sensitive time in the U.S.-Iraq relationship. Iraq is weighing whether to ask U.S. troops to stay in the country longer. There are currently about 47,000 American troops in Iraq, and U.S. officials have been pushing Iraq to decide if they want a U.S. military presence past Dec. 31.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said he thinks the U.S. would agree to staying longer in Iraq if asked.

Al-Dabbagh played down the suggestion that Rohrabacher's comments would have any long-term effect on U.S.-Iraq relations. He described Rohrabacher's comments as a personal statement from a congressman who was trying to make himself "famous."

The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad sought to distance itself from Rohrabacher's comments.

Ambassador James F. Jeffrey emphasized in an interview with Iraqi state TV Sunday that the visiting congressmen do not speak for the U.S. administration and government. His comments were also distributed to the media by the U.S. Embassy.

"They don't collectively represent the views of the U.S. Congress but their own constituents and their own personal views of the situation," he said.

"It's good for me to hear what these congressmen have to say, and it's good for the Iraqi people as well because we have a strategic partnership, but there is no requirement for the Iraqi people to agree with what they heard," he said.

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Associated Press writer Rebecca Santana in Baghdad contributed to this report.