While members of Congress debated last week whether to pass a resolution formally repudiating President Bush for sending more than 20,000 additional combat troops to Iraq, a few members of Congress quietly made plans to slip into the war zone for a firsthand view.
Details of the delegation’s weekend trip were kept secret, even from other congressional lawmakers because of security concerns raised after a rash of deadly attacks on U.S. military helicopters in Bagdad in recent weeks.
Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., led the delegation that included members of both houses and both parties. The group included Rep. Gabriella Giffords, D-Ariz., a freshman representative who opposes the war in Iraq.
Kyl and Giffords spoke to the Tribune on Friday before they left Washington, D.C., on condition that the story not run before today, the day after the delegation was expected to have left Baghdad for Jerusalem.
The group planned to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, U.S. Gen. David Petraeus and other military leaders and personnel while in Iraq.
The congressional leaders wanted to personally deliver a message to al-Maliki that he needs to continue to increase the number of Iraqi troops deployed in defense of the country and strengthen the rules of engagement for dealing with militias and other “bad elements,” Kyl said.
Previously, Iraqi government officials frequently undercut U.S. and Iraqi military gains by releasing captured combatants and surrendering regions that were cleared of anti-government militias back in the hands of the militias, Kyl said.
“What we’re going to do is to say: We think it’s very necessary for this new strategy to prevail,” Kyl said. “Keep up what you’re doing now.”
Kyl said he also wanted to assess how the surge in U.S. troops is assisting Iraqis.
“It’s not just a surge in American troops,” he said. “That is a part of the overall strategy, but it is only one part.”
Giffords said one of her chief objectives is to speak with military personnel.
“I want to make sure their needs are being taken care of, whether or not these multiple re-deployments are affecting people’s families,” said Giffords, a member of the House Armed Services Committee.
U.S. troops performed heroically during the initial invasion, the search for weapons of mass destruction and the search and capture of Saddam Hussein, she said.
However, Giffords questions the military’s current role in Iraq.
“Now, our troops are being caught up in a political situation — a situation that doesn’t have a military remedy,” she said. “I have some concerns in terms of readiness worldwide. There are other spots in the world like Afghanistan, like North Korea, like potential hot spots around the world such as South America, that readiness is critically important.”
She added she wants to make sure “our military has the might and force that we need wherever we send them.”
“Iraq is draining a lot of our resources and frankly, these are resources that I believe can be spent in other places,” Giffords said.
The role of the United States should be limited to stabilizing Iraq, she said.
“We have a responsibility to the Iraqi people to help them determine what they want their country to look like, to help them learn how to govern, to help them build the infrastructure that they’re going to need,” Giffords said.
On Monday and Tuesday, members of the congressional delegation also are expected to meet with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who will be in Israel to participate in peace talks.
Members of the delegation said they plan to meet with Israeli and Palestinian political leaders, as well.
“We want to convey a message to the Palestinians that they have got to become a partner for peace. You can’t expect the Israelis to negotiate with people who refuse to recognize their right to exist,” Kyl said.
“We also want to send message to the Israelis and hear from them. It’s a message of support from the United States in their fight (against) terrorists,” he said.
Giffords, who traveled extensively even before winning office, acknowledged the danger of visiting a war zone, but said it was important to appraise the situation herself.
“To me, it’s similar to my experience of visiting Ground Zero,” she said. “You could see the site of the World Trade Center on television, you could read about it in the newspaper and hear about it on the radio, but it’s absolutely nothing like seeing it for yourself in person. And that’s how I see Iraq.”
Giffords said she also looked forward to working with Kyl during the trip.
Kyl is the third-ranking member in the Senate Republican leadership, and one of the most outspoken supporters of increasing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq.