Troops can be home by 2007, Inslee believes

Jay Inslee -
Jay Inslee
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But the Bainbridge congressman says Iraqi forces still need more and better equipment.

Even as Rep. Jay Inslee toured Iraq this past week, that nation’s top leaders were in Egypt calling for a timetable for withdrawal of American troops.

The timing couldn’t have been better for the Bainbridge Island Democrat, who believes the Iraq occupation can and should be substantially complete by the end of next year.

“That was a very significant event, I think,” Inslee said of the Cairo summit. “If we’re going to respect Iraq having a government, we need to respect their request in that regard.”

Inslee toured Iraq over a three-day period with five other congress members, four Republicans and a Democrat.

The entourage saw Baghdad, the northern city of Tikrit and a sprawling American military installation in the Iraqi desert.

They also visited Ramstein Air Base in Germany, meeting with injured American troops who the congressman said enjoyed high morale and were eager to get back into action.

More than 100 congress members have now toured post-invasion Iraq. This was Inslee’s first visit since an earlier try fell through.

This trip, he said, was precipitated by ongoing dissatisfaction with the Bush administration’s direction with an occupation of decreasing popularity both at home and abroad.

“It was clear to me that ‘more of the same’ was not a strategy,” Inslee said Wednesday evening, fresh off the plane from the fact-finding mission. “The president basically keeps saying, ‘Let’s do more of the same and the result will change.’ That seems to be the definition of a lack of common sense.”

The delegation enjoyed the unusual luxury of staying overnight in Baghdad rather than being flown out of the country to safer environs each night.

Even so, because of the lingering danger of traveling by vehicle – roadside explosives remain a constant threat as occupation forces battle insurgents – the daily tours were conducted by helicopter.

With the top echelon of Iraqi officials at the reconciliation conference in Cairo, Inslee met with various second-tier ministers as well as senior American commanders and troops in the field.

Inslee said one American general described the resilient insurgency in terms of a bell curve. At one end are a small number of al-Qaeda faithful who make the news with car bombings; at the other are Sadaam loyalists who would like to see the Baathist regime restored.

Both extremes, Inslee said, require a military response.

But the bulk of the insurgents, the congressman said, are simply unemployed and disaffected Iraqis unhappy with the occupation itself. To that extent, the very presence of American forces may perpetuate the cycle of violence that plagues the country.

“Remove the occupation and we remove the recruiting-poster charm of those groups,” Inslee said.

Post-war reconstruction has seen mixed results, the congressman found.

Hundreds of schools have been built, and there has been substantial investment in local infrastructure. But establishing a reliable power grid remains an elusive goal.

Inslee met with one contractor who cited an electrical facility that has been blown up and rebuilt five different times.

“We just haven’t had success in electricity,” he said. “In Baghdad, you have less electricity than before the war started. That sets up huge tensions when you’re sitting in Baghdad in 130-degree heat without air conditioning.”

In training

The key to an American withdrawal, Inslee said, is not just training effective and independent Iraqi security forces, but arming them as well.

The entourage observed the training of Iraqi special forces, which Inslee said was “impressive” to both the delegation and the American troops providing the training.

At the same time, he said, the overwhelming majority of Iraqi forces remain poorly equipped, going into combat lacking everything from helicopters to radios.

Building up their stock of war materiel is essential to making those forces self-sustaining, Inslee said, and “a cheap price to pay to bring our sons and daughters home.”

No plan, he said, comes with guarantees, given the ongoing, sectarian “anger and hatred” between Shiite and Sunni factions. But a timetable for withdrawal, he said, would send a message to both groups that they must make “meaningful peace” with each other.

“At some point, they have to step up to the plate,” he said. “If they can’t form a government, we can’t solve that even if we stay there for 20 years.”

Inslee’s comments come as Congressional debate over the war and occupation are revivified, with the rough coincidence of the 2,000th American troop death and the well-publicized flare-up over Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha’s call for full withdrawal within six months.

Even this week, the White House suggested that troop levels could be substantially reduced in 2006, depending on the stability of the Iraqi nation after upcoming elections.

Inslee acknowledged the change in tenor on Capitol Hill.

“This debate has blossomed very rapidly,” he said. “Frankly, the White House is in deep trouble in a lot of ways and places, and I think they’re starting to realize that they can’t intimidate us into silence.”

Calling critics of the war “cowards,” he said, “hasn’t played well.”

“What we’ve learned is, this White House only changes when it’s under huge pressure of humiliation and embarrassment,” Inslee said. “We need to keep up the pressure.”

Inslee observed that even if American troops are out of Iraq by the end of next year, the nation will have been battling in Iraq longer than it was involved in World War II.

That, he suggested, is long enough.

“Having been adamantly against the war from the beginning, it is a very frustrating situation now to have to find a way out,” he said. “Nonetheless, I believe that we are in this boat altogether, Republicans and Democrats, and we all have to find a way out of Iraq.”

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