My Congressman, Col. John Kline, has just led a delegation to Iraq that included Minnesota Congressman Mark Kennedy. I think we’ll be hearing from John soon, but in the meantime, Mark has sent us his impressions of the trip, recorded contemporaneously:
The Right Headline
The headline on Sunday, Nov. 20 edition of the military newspaper Stars and Stripes,” Mid-East Edition, was: Amid debate, Bush vows complete victory in Iraq. House overwhelmingly rejects immediate troop pullout. That is exactly what our troops needed to and wanted to hear. I spent the day reinforcing the message with our troops that America stands behind them in the great work they are doing bringing freedom to Iraq and keeping America secure.
What a difference a year makes
We began our visit to Iraq with a briefing from General George Casey, Commander of Military Operations in Iraq, at his office in the Al Faw Palace in Camp Victory, near Baghdad. I told him that since I was briefed by him in that same office in August, 2004, dramatic progress had been made. This is my third annual trip to Iraq. I visit Iraq every year to thank our troops for their brave service and sacrifice, and find out what we can do to help them get the job done and come home safely, to see first hand conditions on the ground, and also to benchmark progress. Progress was clear.
In August, 2004, we landed at a military-controlled Baghdad International Airport controlled in a cork screw pattern to avoid being fired at. This time we landed straight on at that same airport, which is now under civilian control, and has not experienced an attack for a year. As we flew on Blackhawk helicopters over Baghdad this year, I saw school yards filled with young students and streets throughout the city choked with traffic.
Last visit, General Petraeus introduced us to the first Iraq battalion to graduate from the then new Iraqi Military Academy the day after they engaged the enemy for the first time. Today, 40 Iraqi battalions (750 men each) can take the lead and Lt. General Dempsey said that nearly 100,000 more Iraqi Security Forces will be on hand for Decembers elections than were on hand for Januarys election. Since August 2004, the Iraqi people gave the terrorists an ink stained finger as they voted in January with a high turnout among all voters, including Sunnis, and approved a constitution last month. On December 15, they elect a permanent government under that constitution. In August 2004, we had to fly in and out of Iraq every day, this year we spent the evening in Baghdad. General Casey said that day by day, progress is not always easy to see. I told him that year by year, thanks to the great work of Americas military and Foreign Service, it is evident and remarkable.
As we were being briefed by General George Casey, Commander of Military Operations in Iraq, at his office in the Al Faw Palace in Camp Victory, near Baghdad, we could see FOX news on big screen TV in the background. As we were there to carry a message of support from the American People, on the TV flashed images of our Congressional debate just hours before on a resolution dealing with whether to pull out of Iraq. Unfortunately, the debate was less about the substance of our Iraqi policy or how to win the War on Terror, but more just the unleashing of anger. And as General Casey said, the vitriolic worries the Iraqis about our commitment. Luckily, pulling out of Iraq immediately was rejected almost unanimously. Yes, we still face challenges, but progress is dramatic, the stakes are so high, those who take risks to stand with us in advancing freedom must know we will not cut and run and the troops must know that we stand with them.
Significant progress is being made in standing up Iraqi Security Forces. It is a three step process: 1) Training Iraqis, 2) embedding a Coalition Transition Team and 3) Partnering them with a Coalition Force. Handover of areas of operations to Iraqi forces continues apace, with 2/3 of Iraqi Brigades being able to take the lead in counter-insurgency operations by next June and 80% of the Divisions able to by the end of 2006. But continued training on the job with Coalition forces is critical.
As General Dempsey says, we want the process to go 75 mph, but the limit on Iraqis’ ability to absorb, balanced with a sincere effort to avoid the Iraqis becoming dependent on Americans, means we need to go forward at 35 mph. Dempsey says any further rush would be like giving Iraqis a bass boat with a fancy fish finder, when what they really need is to be taught how to fish. Not only is the magnitude of the training program impressive, led in part by NATO, but efforts to help develop their logistics and Defense Ministry function will increasingly allow Iraqis to defend Iraq with, assuming continued progress on the political and training fronts, as General Dempsey described, a progressive and gradual reduction in American forces over time.
Al Qaeda in Retreat
American commanders say that we have never been better positioned against Al Qaeda in Iraq, not just because of the victories we are achieving cutting off their supply lines along the Euphrates River with Operation Steel Curtain, but because of their recent attacks turning the Iraqi people against them. Recent Al Qaeda attacks against everyday Iraqis Sunni and Shia alike, the Zawahiri letter to Zarqawi, capped off with the Amman, Jordan bombing have undermined their support.
Saddam on Trial
U.S. liaison to the trial of Saddam said that it was important for the Iraqi people to create a record of the atrocities that Saddam inflicted on his people and to ensure justice is done by holding the perpetrators to account. He said that if you asked an Iraqi, who in their family was one of the 300,000 still missing, or was held without trial, tortured or killed by Saddam, a cousin would be as far away as they get. One of the cases brought against Saddam was 135 women and children holding their toys, each with a small arms bullet to their head, lying side by side in a mass grave. It is inconceivable to me that some would say that we should not have overthrown this brutal tyrant and have let this suffering go on.
Mark is a good friend and a solid conservative. His unswerving support for our soldiers, sailors and Marines in the field, and his unwavering commitment to victory in the war on terror, remind us how important next year’s elections will be. He is also one of the leading supporters of freedom of speech on the internet and elsewhere.
A year from now, Mark will be running for an open Minnesota Senate seat. Exchanging the feckless Mark Dayton for Mark Kennedy would be a huge upgrade in the Senate. And Mark will almost certainly be running against a left-liberal Democrat in the Dayton mold. Please consider giving him your financial support in the months to come.