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2007.09.11: September 11, 2007: Headlines: Figures: COS - Nepal: Politics: Congress: Iraq: Syracuse News: James Walsh writes: My Iraq Journal
James Walsh writes: My Iraq Journal
"How much does America have to give this country as its people continue to fight against us? That is the big question. Our troops have done everything we've asked of them and more. They've performed brilliantly in an incredibly hostile environment. We've given them their freedom, eliminated Saddam, protected them as they voted, chose an interim government, created a constitution, and elected a democratically-elected government. I believe we've done everything we set out to do. I believe its time to start bringing our soldiers home. They've done their job; it's now up to the Iraqis. If they truly want the democracy, they have to learn compromise and share power. This could take a long time. We've been there for them for five years now. That's enough. By beginning to draw down troops, we send a very clear signal to the political leaders that it's now their time to lead. A gradual drawdown will give them the time they need to make the hard decisions that are required. No nation has given more to another nation - its best and brightest, its wealth, its prayers, and certainly its patience. It's time for the Iraqis to stand up and show what they can do. If they cannot do it now, they may never do it. The political leaders need a sense of urgency. If it fails, we will have done our best. If it is successful, the U.S. has done a remarkable thing. History will be the judge." Congressman James Walsh of New York served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nepal in the 1960's.
James Walsh writes: My Iraq Journal
My Iraq Journal, by Jim Walsh
Posted by Brian Cubbison September 11, 2007 11:15PM
Categories: Links, Politics
Rep. James Walsh, R-Onondaga, made his first trip to Iraq in four years on Saturday and Sunday to meet with troops, American diplomats, Iraqi officials and to see first-hand what is happening on the ground.
During his trip, Walsh visited a military hospital in Balad, a neighborhood once controlled by insurgents in Baghdad, and met with officials overseeing the restoration of Iraq, including its feeble electrical grid.
Walsh, who returned to Washington on Monday, said he left Iraq convinced that the country's problems demand a political solution. He decided it is time to begin a more rapid and more substantial withdrawal of U.S. troops than President Bush is planning.
Walsh described what he saw and how it influenced his decision in a journal he kept during his trip. What follows are excerpts from that journal that he shared with The Post-Standard.
By Rep. James T. Walsh
Special to The Post-Standard
10 p.m. Washington time, Thursday, Sept. 6
(on the plane)
So far so good. We wound up with a direct flight from Dulles to Kuwait City. Five members of Congress plus military escort and Armed Services Committee staff. It's a 12-hour flight, so I'm looking forward to a good meal, a glass of wine and a decent night's sleep.
This trip initially was to be led by Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. but he backed out. My staff took over planning since I was the senior member. We were able to accomplish my goal of scheduling some time with some of the same people that I met with four years ago (September 2003) -- the City Council members in Kirkuk (northern Iraq in the Kurdish zone). We'll meet with them on Sunday. I also asked to meet with the Sunni political leaders who walked out of the Maliki government in August, and I believe that, too, will happen.
We'll be briefed by Gen. Raymond Odierno, who is second in command (Petraeus is in the U.S. preparing to brief Congress). I met with Odierno in '03 -- very impressive leader, tall, handsome and personable. He told us his unit (2nd Infantry U.S. Army) would find Saddam -- he guaranteed it. A year later his soldiers pulled Saddam out of his spider hole in his hometown of Tikrit.
We will be briefed by the Embassy when we arrive, then by the Iraqi Army and security police. We'll have lunch with soldiers (I requested no officers be present so that we can get it straight from them), and dinner with the Embassy staff in the Green Zone. I also asked that we get a briefing on infrastructure improvements, particularly electrical power output. In '03 I visited the al-Dowra power station in Baghdad, and I'm anxious to see how many of the four smokestacks are smoking. I was told that the day we visited there in '03 was the only day that two generators were running (as opposed to only one ever other day).
It will be a very full two days, and we'll helicopter around Iraq out to Kirkuk and back. I believe that armed transport is probably riskier than Black Hawks because of the IED threat.
Hopefully re-tracing some of the steps I took back in September '03 will allow me to compare and contrast, see progress or lack of progress and get a sense of the security situation on the ground. I'd love to be able to talk with individual Iraqis, and I'm going to try to get to a marketplace , but it may not be possible. It'd be nice to bring some trinkets home for my girls (and maybe for the boys). Language is a huge barrier, as is security, and the military entourage would change the chemistry. It's definitely not like when I was in the Peace Corps in Nepal and I could go anywhere and talk to anyone about whatever I wanted. I think I'll gain a great deal of knowledge that I wouldn't have if I stayed home. There's no question there is some risk, but heck, I'll be there for two days, and our troops are there for 15 months at a time. There is no substitute for being there, and it will help to make some tough choices when I get back.
4:15 a.m. Iraq time, Saturday, Sept. 8
(at the hotel in Kuwait)
I had a chance to hear some great Middle Eastern music last night. After we arrived at the hotel, settled in, cleaned up (it's dusty and 109 degrees Fahrenheit at 6 p.m. and it's also dark) we had dinner at a Lebanese restaurant in the hotel with the group -- nice Lebanese buffet. We were all pretty tired so at about 10, I got ready for bed. As soon as I set my alarm a burst of music, mostly drums, exploded from six floors below (we are in one of those hotels that has one giant courtyard that goes up about 15 stories). Anyway, it was really loud and it sounded vaguely like wedding music -- which it was. After about an hour it quieted down enough to sleep, but it made for a restless night.
We fly to Baghdad this morning at 6.
Looking at my notes from the Sept. '03 trip, I've been struck by a number of things. The level of optimism in my journal and the level of positive feeling among the troops and Iraqis were remarkable. I don't expect I'll see that this time. Three thousand American soldiers have died in the interim, not to mention Iraqis.
Two statements jumped out: Ambassador Bremer and British Ambassador Greenstock suggested that we could begin reducing force structures as earlier as May 2004. Also that the troops had certainly one year of boots on the ground and then home. Today we have higher troop strength than in '03 and deployments now are 15 months and some of these folks have been here three or four times.
Sure it's impossible to predict the future, but that is what we'll be asking people to do while were here. The difference is, experience is a wonderful teacher.
Something else I mentioned is electrical power. I believe Iraq is still at pre-Saddam level and meanwhile demand has grown exponentially. They are still rationing power and given summer temperatures of more than 110 degrees, there is a huge need. They told us in '03 that the best innovation would be mini-natural gas generators distributed all around the country. The problem is, there is plenty of natural gas, but they don't capture it at the well head.
6:30 a.m. Iraq time, Saturday, Sept. 8
We just boarded an Air Force C-130 loaded with Air Force troops in battle dress and carrying rifles and small arms. They looked very tough, but when we introduced ourselves all around people were warm and friendly. Speaking of warm, we had helmets and personal body armor -- together about 25 pounds. These soldiers with all of their gear carry about 70 pounds. The guys I spoke with are from Wisconsin and Washington State. The Wisconsin guy is on his fourth tour. They are training Iraqi troops, and he said the Iraqis still look to the Americans to do the hard stuff and they stand back and watch.
These C-130s are really the workhorse of the military. We're leaving from Kuwait with piles of gear and about 40 airmen. The seating is webbing with seat belts, no shoulder belts. Breakfast today was very good coffee at the hotel, a banana and a good ol' Snickers bar -- all of the major food groups covered.
By the way, the crew on board is very professional, business-like and matter-of-fact. In '03 when we flew in we had to take evasive measures and we will again today. They say the threat level is higher than normal. Therefore the corkscrew maneuver descending into Baghdad Airport should be pretty vigorous. Many of these planes receive small arms fire on the way in and out, so they are very careful.
Today most of our day will be spent in the Green Zone and getting briefed by US and Iraqi diplomats, but also Iraqi and US Army officials.
About 8:30 a.m. Iraq time, Saturday, Sept. 8
We can't land in Baghdad Airport because of poor visibility. We're flying to Balad AFB, north of Baghdad, and we're circling. Everyone seems to be staying in good spirits -- soldiers and members of Congress are swapping snacks and pictures of kids, taking pictures of each other and trading business cards.
One of the crew grabbed a sandwich and put it in a helmet that was hanging on a horizontal guy wire. He signaled to his buddy in the back of the plane and then gave it a good shove. It slid perfectly all the way back and the airman grabbed at the sandwich with a big smile on his face.
The colonel across from me said it was a new system that the Air Force paid a billion and a half dollars for. We all got a good laugh out of it.
Not sure where we'll wind up, but the seat is no less comfortable and the flack jacket and helmet are getting heavier and heavier. I sure could have used these earplugs they gave us to fend off that wedding music last night.
2:15 p.m. Iraq time, Saturday, Sept. 8
(Balad AFB - 109 degrees)
The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray. We couldn't land in Baghdad because of the visibility problem. We put down at Balad, which is only 60 miles north of Baghdad, and we'll stay here until the weather clears. We made good use of our time though. We had lunch in the mess with soldiers (airmen). The airmen were from Washington State, North Carolina, Philadelphia and Arizona. All young, bright and well-spoken. They were all in an Air Force Security Unit, but two of them were jet engine mechanics -- highly skilled for such a young age. They didn't volunteer much info, and I tried to get them talking. They finally warmed up a little; mostly they said they were happy. Their tours are only four months. They feel badly for the Army because of their long tours and tough living conditions.
Also at Balad is the Military Med Evac 332 EM/DG. This is the hospital that was written up in a number of articles about the remarkable skill and professionalism of the staff and the incredible results they are getting saving lives. The most amazing thing is that they were doing this in tents up until last month when the new building was completed. We toured the facility for about an hour and a half and followed the course that a wounded soldier would follow once they were delivered there by helicopter. It's been said that if they can get the wounded to the hospital alive, regardless of injury, they can save the life over 95 percent of the time.
They have the best equipment, the best nurses, the best docs and the best experience. It is, without a doubt, the most skilled ER in the world. And what they are learning about trauma care is coming home with the doctors and nurses.
In spite of the uplifting work that goes on, it also made me very sad. When you think of the hundreds injured a month (Iraqis included) who are treated there and the seriousness of their wounds, it's difficult to bear. We visited some of the wounded -- who are so strong and brave and dedicated. All they want to do is get back to their units. But after they go back through Germany and to Walter Reed or Bethesda and they realize they aren't going back, that's when reality sets in -- that their lives are changed forever. I've seen it happen a number of times, and its heart breaking. These men and women are warriors, and that's where they want to be. When they can't go back they really have to start over. That's why we have to do a better job of re-settling them and giving them a new start.
They had a room at the hospital just for the patients; it had TVs, DVDs and games -- lots of stuff. And they were encouraged to write on the walls, and they did. The quotes were poignant, philosophical and some were very blunt. They were the lucky guys in the Humvee who survived the IED. Their buddies that they wrote about didn't.
3 p.m. Iraq time, Sunday, Sept. 9
(in the air - 102 degrees)
We're back on a C-130 headed for Kuwait. Covered some ground since my last note yesterday. We left Balad, flew back to try and land in Baghdad. It's a 60-mile flight and again due to visibility we were in the air for over two hours. We circled Baghdad Airport for better than two hours and finally set down around 5:30 p.m.
There was no air conditioning on the flight. It was unbelievably hot on the ground in Balad but it seemed as we circled Baghdad the heat grew and grew. Sweat was pouring out of everyone, and the webbing that we sat on imbedded itself in my posterior. It was brutal. But I reminded myself that these soldiers we were flying with were going to get off the plane and go to work for a least a year. It really meant a lot to them that we were there.
One of the Members on the trip with us said he served in Vietnam for a year and never heard of a Member of Congress visiting them -- we were the 15th CODEL visiting Iraq in the last month.
The Baghdad schedule was obviously blown and tomorrow's schedule was now changed too. The visit I most wanted to make, with the City Council in Kirkuk, was now off. The weather continues to menace us. The opportunity to meet with the same people I met with four years ago is going to be missed. I think they really could have put things in perspective and given some real texture to an otherwise brief trip.
I was told that since the Kirkuk Provincial government is also in Kirkuk that the city government is overshadowed and underfunded. Sounds like here! But it still would have been very helpful to speak with local officials.
Anyway, we had dinner with the DCM (Deputy Ambassador). Ambassador Crocker is in the U.S. preparing to brief Congress. They brought in their team which was very impressive. Three of the officers are former full ambassadors who just came to Iraq to help with the diplomatic/political mission including the former Ambassador to Greece and Bangladesh. We were also joined by Gen. Petraeus' chief of staff -- Lt. General Rollo, a Brit.
No one was terribly optimistic on the political and economic front. The mood (other than the generals) was much less optimistic and enthusiastic than it was when I came in '03. The Maliki government doesn't govern very well. Many of the ministers are inexperienced and have no management skills. The ministers are more concerned about process and self-preservation than making hard decisions. People seemed to believe that it was possible for the Sunni and Shia to govern together but there were huge roadblocks. The Sunni political leaders seem to think that if they stay away, the government will crumble and they'll get control. The Shia have never had power before and since they have always been the victim in Iraq, they somehow can't grasp that they in charge. And neither group has ever had to negotiate before.
I reminded people that it took 15 years after the ceasefire to get a power sharing agreement and a government in N. Ireland. I said I didn't think that American people have that kind of patience. No one disagreed.
I spoke with the general in charge of the Army Corps of Engineers, too. I wanted to know what he could tell me about the electrical grid and power generators. His views were substantially different than an economist I spoke with today. The general said Iraq was generating 5,300 megawatts per day, about 5 to 10 percent more than the Saddam era. The economist said it varied greatly from 4,000 to 5,000 MW. The point is the Iraqis are demanding more power and have been getting the same or less for the last four years. The economist said there has really been no progress since I was here last, and that was very discouraging. There was a web site where I could monitor this but they took it down about a year and a half ago. Probably because it was embarrassing. The economist did say that generating capacity is up to 2,000 MW but it's not getting out to the customer because of poor maintenance and attacks on the system.
I think if the people see no progress in their quality of life they are much more susceptible to al-Qaida ideology.
1:15 a.m. Iraq time, Monday, Sept. 10
(TBC - 70 degrees)
Today was full, and it's now 1:15 a.m. and I'm on the flight back to Washington. It's a 14-hour flight and we gain seven hours so we'll get to Dulles about 7:30 a.m. I have been in the air for over 33½ hours this weekend.
As I said, no Kirkuk and also no Sunni leadership. They couldn't get a time to meet. The only good news on the Sunni front is that they rejoined the government today. Maybe that's why there were too busy to see us.
We were briefed by Embassy staff on PRT (Provisional Reconstruction Team). The meeting was very instructive for two reasons: we had a vigorous discussion with Americans responsible for PRT. It became very clear in the discussion that the process is a mess. We have State Department, USAID and Army Corps of Engineers all in the mix. The left hand doesn't seem to know what the right hand is doing. Also the Iraqi government wants to control the money and the Provisional government has little to say about it.
The second thing I learned was a very candid statement from the military officer who provided part of the briefing. He said: "Don't give the Iraq government any more money for reconstruction. They have enough." That was probably the best information I received on the trip. The money is stuck in the process and it's not getting out to the provinces. The American government needs to put more pressure on the Iraqi government to move, on many fronts.
We donned our body armor and helmets and got in the Humvees (I met a young First Lieutenant named Mark Irwin from Syracuse whom I appointed to West Point who is now with the US Army 1st Cavalry and a terrific young man). We crossed out of the Green Zone and spent a good chunk of time in the Khark neighborhood of Baghdad. Haifa Street is part of the neighborhood and was a real terrorist hotbed. They were proud to say it no longer is. After a tour we met in a police station and were briefed by local police who work with the U.S. Army in a joint effort.
They highlighted their approach to go to after al-Qaida, protect the citizenry and restore order. In that part of Baghdad it seems to be working. It is now the safest neighborhood in Baghdad and I'm sure that's why we were there, but the cooperation was good.
I wanted to know how long before they could do it on their own and the answer was evasive. At least we had a chance to speak with some Iraqis and the general in charge of the National Police who briefed us was a Sunni. I asked him if the police were trusted equally by Sunni and Shia and he said it was "getting better." In other words the Sunnis still didn't trust fully government institutions like the police.
We drove through the neighborhoods on relatively cool, late morning, it was 99 degrees. The streets were busy, colorful and noisy, just they way they should be. And the electricity was on.
We proceeded to Camp Liberty, home of the US 1st Cavalry Division. It's a relatively beautiful development in an otherwise unattractive landscape that was carved out of the desert by Saddam.
Along the way we passed what was to be the world's largest mosque. The building cranes were still standing, idle now for about five years since the war started. We also passed a massive, half-built palace which Saddam was building to celebrate his "victory" over the U.S. in the first Gulf War. Both present and future reminders of his self-indulgence at the expense of the Iraqi people.
We ended the day with a military briefing on Baghdad by the general in command of the city. I thought his assessment ran counter to much of what I'd seen in terms of security. Iraq is still a very dangerous place with serious governance problems.
I had lunch with soldiers from New York: Niemi (Binghamton), Hennessy (Sherrill), Spadaro (Brooklyn), Rodriguez (Bronx) and Griswold (Burnt Hills).
They were typical of any soldier: smart, focused and the best at what they do. I told them that the whole country as well as New York State are proud of them.
7 a.m. Washington time
We're now over New York state, about a half hour out of Dulles. Slept pretty well, but my mind is whirling. It was such a quick trip and some real disappointments in the schedule. But I reminded myself we were in Asia, and much of what we did was beyond my control.
But moving around in Iraq, Baghdad and Balad and even in Kuwait reminds me of how great the challenge and how huge the cultural difference. If we don't get off our addiction to imported oil we'll certainly be looking over our shoulder economically.
On security, I thought it very interesting that no one ever considered driving from Balad to Baghdad, a shorter distance than Syracuse to Rochester, because of the danger. Driving through Baghdad, we were always in armored Humvees wearing helmets and body armor. Al-Qaida, which is the catalyst for almost all of the sectarian violence, is still at large although seemingly in retreat. They'll go into Sadr City and blow up a car in a marketplace killing Shia and then the Shia will respond by attacking a Sunni neighborhood, since al-Qaida is Sunni. It's a vicious cycle. Now as security increases in Baghdad, the projection is al-Qaida will move to more remote areas to wreak havoc on weaker targets as they did two weeks ago killing 500 Christian Kurds. They have to keep their name in the papers to show their relevance.
But I believe the biggest challenge is the government. If there is no consensus, the Shia won't be able to govern.
Rumors are circulating that Allawi or Chalabi will try to make a comeback but they are discredited and ex-patriots who fled Saddam for a safer place.
The Iraqi army is definitely bigger, better trained and more effective but they have a long way to go as it was explained to me by some of the trainers I met. Interestingly, as they grow more powerful I believe they'll be more of a threat to a rudderless political leadership. Already the pols are holding the purse strings and telling the generals what to do more.
The bottom line:
Iraq is still one of the most dangerous places on Earth.
The government -- while ineffective -- is stumbling toward a working democracy.
The Iraqi army is taking more responsibility, but has a ways to go.
The Iraqi police are still a problem, especially for the Sunnis.
Iran foments trouble with the Shia; Syria and Saudi Arabia with the Sunni.
Sunni sheiks are working with us against al-Qaida, but will it last? Are they just getting us to arm them against the Shia?
Can the Sunni and Shia get a deal?
How much does America have to give this country as its people continue to fight against us?
That is the big question. Our troops have done everything we've asked of them and more. They've performed brilliantly in an incredibly hostile environment. We've given them their freedom, eliminated Saddam, protected them as they voted, chose an interim government, created a constitution, and elected a democratically-elected government. I believe we've done everything we set out to do.
I believe its time to start bringing our soldiers home. They've done their job; it's now up to the Iraqis. If they truly want the democracy, they have to learn compromise and share power. This could take a long time. We've been there for them for five years now. That's enough.
By beginning to draw down troops, we send a very clear signal to the political leaders that it's now their time to lead. A gradual drawdown will give them the time they need to make the hard decisions that are required.
No nation has given more to another nation - its best and brightest, its wealth, its prayers, and certainly its patience. It's time for the Iraqis to stand up and show what they can do. If they cannot do it now, they may never do it. The political leaders need a sense of urgency.
If it fails, we will have done our best. If it is successful, the U.S. has done a remarkable thing. History will be the judge.
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Headlines: September, 2007; RPCV James Walsh (Nepal); Figures; Peace Corps Nepal; Directory of Nepal RPCVs; Messages and Announcements for Nepal RPCVs; Politics; Congress; Iraq; New York
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