To the editor,
Last weekend, I traveled to Iraq with a bipartisan delegation of Members of Congress. This letter seeks to provide a synopsis of my trip and the conclusions I drew from it. My time in Iraq further deepened my respect and admiration for our troops, and also reaffirmed my belief that the United States must bring its involvement in this war to an end.
Last Thursday night I flew from Andrews Air Force Base to Kuwait with a Congressional delegation including Rep. David Loebsack (D-IA), Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), and Rep. Rick Keller (R-FL). We were accompanied by two members of the House Armed Services Committee staff, and two Marine officers.
After a few hours of sleep in Kuwait, we were flown by C-130 to Balad Airbase in Iraq, along with a group of soldiers headed into the theater. On our way in, the crew deployed flares, apparently in response to a perceived threat from the ground. We were given a tour of the base and the Air Force Theater Hospital, where injured troops are treated before returning to their units or sent to Ramstein, Germany. Iraqi civilians are also occasionally treated at the AFTH.
I then had the privilege of sharing lunch with servicemen and women from New York, including one from my district. We had a wide-ranging discussion of the war and future U.S. policy. After seeing them in action, I cannot state strongly enough my appreciation for our Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine personnel. Officers, medical teams, enlisted men and women are all displaying creativity, commitment, and a work ethic that should make us all proud. Even when carrying out duties other than their specialty, such as an artillery officer doing civil affairs or training of Iraqi police, they approach the task with efficiency and professionalism.
Nearby we were shown a dramatic example of the dangers our troops face: A huge parking lot full of hundreds of humvees, Bradley vehicles, tanks and trucks, all more or less destroyed by IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices). Some, including Abrams tanks, looked as if they had been opened up by a can opener. Some had metal inside that had melted from the heat and fire of the explosions. Tires, tread, electronics and other useable parts were being salvaged and the twisted steel sold to Kuwait for scrap. Some vehicles were deemed fit for repair, but most of what we saw was clearly far beyond repair. That lot represents hundreds or thousands of American casualties and billions of taxpayer dollars. Yet we were not allowed to take photographs of it.
In the Green Zone, the most heavily guarded part of Baghdad, we were shown the concrete bomb shelters every couple of hundred feet, and warned to duck inside one if an alarm sounded. Just the week before, two American troops were killed by mortar fire in the Green Zone. Even sleeping in a guest room in Saddam’s pool house, ringed by miles of concrete barriers and razor wire, our lives were at risk.
We had meetings with Iraqi Vice President Adil Abdulmahdi, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, and Regional Intelligence staff, and dinner with General David Petraeus, who is from the Town of Cornwall in New York’s 19th Congressional District.
Ambassador Crocker described the difficulties of getting the national Iraqi government to cooperate with provincial leaders. Asked about progress toward national reconciliation, he said, “The Maliki government is somewhere between challenged and dysfunctional.”
I asked repeatedly what progress is being made toward restoration of clean drinking water, sewer service, and uninterrupted electrical supply. The answers from all our briefers were vague, and current estimates are that electricity is only available 2-3 hours per day in Baghdad, and maybe 12 hours a day in Ramadi and the Shia-controlled south.
In response to a question about the connection between Al Qaeda and AQI (Al Qaeda in Iraq), our briefers all agreed that there is no operational connection. According to them, AQI is made up of locals mixed with some foreign fighters. Most of the foreign fighters are Saudi, and since Saudi Arabia and Jordan have done a pretty good job of closing their borders, these jihadists work their way north through Jordan into Syria, and cross into Iraq from there.
There was no evidence or claim made that AQI is the same Al Qaeda who attacked us on 9/11. They may be inspired by them, but they are not the same. I believe that this difference is very important for the American people to understand.
General Petraeus, who was generous and forthcoming with his answers and his time, told us that the next day we would get a chance to see the success story of Anbar, and to visit Ramadi where violent attacks have declined for the last few months. We were anxious to experience it for ourselves.
The next day, we boarded two Blackhawk helicopters and flew over the city and countryside, with body armor and helmets on, as 50-caliber machine guns were aimed out both front doors. A few rounds were fired, “to clear an intersection” I was told later. Landing in Ramadi, we were met by Brigadier General John Allen, Deputy Commander of Multi-National Force West, and Colonel John Charlton, Commander of 1-3 Brigade Combat Team. After a briefing on the situation in Ramadi, we were taken to the opening of a small business center, a meeting with Mayor Latif and other provincial officials.
In an area where President Bush highlights improvements in security, we donned helmets and body armor, climbed into two MRAPs (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles), and were escorted by a heavily armed convoy of at least ten vehicles as we drove a serpentine course between high concrete walls and around barriers that kept our speed down to five or ten miles per hour. Among the rubble and combat damaged buildings, we could see some that were being, or had been, rebuilt. At the entrance to the small business center, which was surrounded and guarded by hundreds of blue-clad Iraqi police in anticipation of our visit, we dismounted and were told to remove our helmets and armor. Entering the courtyard, and again approaching the tent where the official press conference with Iraqi media was being held, there was shoving and shouting as different police and/or militia and/or private security insisted that they should be allowed in to defend whichever Shaykh they were protecting.
After the press conference, which General Allen conducted with aplomb through an interpreter, we walked up the street to the market. As we strolled past stalls selling fruit, or clothing, or ice cream, and handed toys to children and their parents, we were encircled by dozens of American troops with their helmets and body armor on, and carrying automatic weapons pointed out in all directions.
If this is one of the safest parts of Iraq, I worry what the dangerous parts are like. When we flew back to al-Taqaddum Airbase by helicopter, we again went fast and low with machine guns ready; when we left for Kuwait on a C-130 with a group of soldiers headed home, the entire crew was on alert looking out the windows until we cleared 15,000 feet, an altitude the insurgents’ missiles can’t reach.
We landed in Kuwait, and immediately boarded our C-40 for the flight to Ramstein Air Base in Germany and a visit to Landstuhl Medical Center. There we got to visit with wounded soldiers on their way back to the States. One American who was wounded in Afghanistan was there, the rest suffered their injuries while serving in Iraq. All of them were attacked in Baghdad. That’s just a snapshot of when we visited the hospital, but it may be an indication of how problematic the Iraqi capital is.
I asked permission, and was encouraged by the staff to get out my guitar and sing a few songs for recovering men and women in the mental health ward. Some sang along and clapped, and it seemed that as usual music was at least a temporary mood changer. I visited with a constituent, a wounded soldier from Highland Falls, who seemed to be recuperating in good spirits. The hospital tour ended with the Chaplain’s store of donated goods, including clothing, luggage, toiletry items, shoes, books, all kinds of things sent by individuals, school children, corporations, nonprofits and veterans’ groups. These gifts allow a soldier who may be evacuated to Landstuhl with nothing but the clothes he or she was wearing at the time of the attack to acquire underwear, socks, new uniforms, workout clothes, duffel bags, toothbrushes and razors, anything they need for the trip home, all free of charge.
Leaving Ramstein for a nine-hour flight back to DC, arriving just in time for votes Monday night, I was still trying to absorb the information and observations of the trip. I can’t overstate my pride in our troops, and I also can’t overstate my obligation to protect them and to protect our country. My conclusion is that we should never send our Armed Forces to carry out a mission that is not militarily achievable. Based on comments by Ambassador Crocker, and the fact that since the September report to Congress the top four Iraqi leaders have not even been in the country at the same time, I continue to believe that American involvement in this war must be ended. This is a political and civil conflict that can only be resolved by the Iraqis themselves, by deciding whether they want to compromise and live together, or continue to fight along religious, ethnic, or tribal lines.
This week President Bush asked for more war funding, bringing his total request for this year to nearly $200 billion. Based on what I just witnessed, and in order to bring the Maliki government back to reality, I will not support such a request without a timeline for redeployment or withdrawal of our troops. I recognize the imperfection of any proposed solution, but if the Sunni Shayks in Anbar can get together, perhaps the Shia mullahs in Basra can also. The Kurdish north already has a functioning government, if they can restrain the PKK from attacking Turkey. Baghdad is a problem, but it is and should be the Iraqis’ to solve.
We should start by turning over Saddam’s palaces to the Iraqi government; I heard repeatedly that our control of the palaces is seen by local population as a sign of occupation.
We should assure the Iraqis and surrounding countries that we have no plans for permanent bases, and cease building anything that can’t be eventually turned over to them.
We should follow the reductions in troop levels already announced by General Petraeus this fall and next spring with more redeployments and continue to hand Iraq back to the Iraqis. We must determine a date to end this unnecessary war, which has sapped our military, drained our treasury, and damaged our reputation around the world.
Congressman John Hall