01/11/07 — Iraq debate begins

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Iraq debate begins

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on January 11, 2007 2:12 PM

President Bush delivered his new plan for Iraq to a divided nation Wednesday night, but among eastern North Carolina's congressional delegation, most felt it was a failed speech.

"I felt the president is trying, but frankly, it was weak," said U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, R-District 3.

U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-District 1, felt much the same way.

"First of all, I think Bush is still in denial," he said. "We are not winning this war and escalating the number of troops in Iraq is not going to win us the war and is not going to give us the exit strategy we need."

However, President Bush said that he, too, is concerned about the current course in Iraq, admitting that after the 2006 national elections, events did not go as planned.

"The violence in Iraq, particularly in Baghdad, overwhelmed the political gains the Iraqis had made," he said. "The situation in Iraq is unacceptable to the American people, and it is unacceptable to me. Our troops in Iraq have fought bravely. They have done everything we have asked them to do.

"Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me. It is clear that we need to change our strategy in Iraq. So my national security team, military commanders and diplomats conducted a comprehensive review."

And it is the results of that review, he explained, that have led him to decide on this new course of action.

Citing the fact that 80 percent of Iraq's violence - much of it sectarian in nature - occurs within 30 miles of Baghdad, Bush announced that he would be surging more than 20,000 troops into the capital city, as well as into the Anbar Province where al-Qaeda has the strongest presence.

Once in place, he continued, American forces will work with Iraqi army and police to clear, and this time, hold the neighborhoods.

But, he stressed, the Iraqis must have a larger stake in this renewed effort by taking full security responsibility by November, spending their own oil revenues on reconstruction projects and holding provincial elections this year.

In return, the U.S. also must change its strategy by increasing the number of advisers and troops embedded in Iraqi brigades, allowing more flexibility in spending reconstruction dollars and doubling the number of reconstruction teams.

And finally, he said, America must work to secure Iraq's borders from foreign fighters and weapons coming from Iran and Syria.

But at the core of his new plan is the increase of American troops to give the Iraqis confidence, help them improve their daily lives and give the government the breathing room it needs.

"...We concluded that to step back now would force a collapse of the Iraqi government, tear that country apart, and result in mass killings on an unimaginable scale," Bush said. "Such a scenario would result in our troops being forced to stay in Iraq even longer, and confront an enemy that is even more lethal. If we increase our support at this crucial moment, and help the Iraqis break the current cycle of violence, we can hasten the day our troops begin coming home."

But many in North Carolina's congressional delegation -- at least in the House -- are ready to see the troops coming home now, not more entering the war.

In a letter written by Jones and sent with eight other Republican signatures to President Bush on Tuesday, the congressman voiced his desire to see an alternative strategy in Iraq, but not a surge of troops.

"As members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have indicated in published reports, even a short-term escalation of the number of U.S. troops in Iraq could create larger problems in the long-term," Jones wrote. "It would increase Iraqi dependence on our forces, deplete our strategic reserve and force extended tours of duty for soldiers and Marines who are scheduled to return to their families.

"The Pentagon has warned that an escalation of our troop levels in Iraq could lead to an increase in al-Qaeda attacks, provide more targets for Sunni insurgents and fuel the jihadist appeals for foreign fighters to attack U.S. soldiers."

But with the first wave of that 20,000 already set to deploy, the surge is likely to remain the centerpiece of the president's plan, regardless of the opposition.

"This is not the right solution," Jones protested. "When you send 20,000 troops to go referee a civil war, it makes no sense. This is a civil war and we're asking our troops to be in the middle and the sad part about being in the middle is people getting shot and killed and wounded. We are dealing with people with no history and no history of democracy. If the Iraqis do not understand that they have to come together as a nation, I don't know how we can make them a nation. While we're trying, our American kids are dying."

At this point, he continued, any sort of success depends solely on the Iraqi people and the Iraqi government -- a fact Bush largely agreed with.

"I have made it clear to the prime minister and Iraq's other leaders that America's commitment is not open-ended. If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people. And it will lose the support of the Iraqi people," he said.

But, the president continued, the Iraqis must be given the opportunity to follow through on those promises and that will require a continued and renewed effort by America -- even as sacrifices must continue to be paid.

"Let me be clear: The terrorists and insurgents in Iraq are without conscience, and they will make the year ahead bloody and violent. Even if our new strategy works exactly as planned, deadly acts of violence will continue. And we must expect more Iraqi and American casualties," he said. "The question is whether our new strategy will bring us closer to success. I believe that it will.

"Victory will not look like the ones our fathers and grandfathers achieved. There will be no surrender ceremony on the deck of a battleship.

"But victory in Iraq will bring something new in the Arab world: a functioning democracy that polices its territory, upholds the rule of law, respects fundamental human liberties, and answers to its people. A democratic Iraq will not be perfect. But it will be a country that fights terrorists instead of harboring them, and it will help bring a future of peace and security for our children and grandchildren."

It's that hope, that has both North Carolina's senators supporting the president's proposal.

"I am encouraged that the president's plan requires the Iraqis to play a much greater role in the stabilization of their country, and that his plan is more comprehensive than simply increasing the number of U.S. troops," Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole said. "The current security and political situation in Iraq is difficult, but a precipitous withdrawal would guarantee defeat and would have catastrophic implications for the security of our country and the stability of the Middle East region.

"I am inclined to support the president's overall plan to make economic revitalization and reconstruction in Iraq a higher priority and to increase the U.S. troop presence to help the Iraqi government impose its authority, weaken the militias, and bolster reconstruction."

Sen. Richard Burr, also a Republican, agreed: "Failure is not an option.

"We owe it to our troops and to the Iraqi people to remain committed to supporting a free and stable Iraq. The Iraqi leadership must rise to the challenge -- the world is watching. It is critical for the Iraqi government to take immediate steps to disband the sectarian militias and death squads, pass key oilsharing legislation, and hold provincial elections. I support a temporary surge in U.S. troops provided those troops are given a clearly defined mission and achievable military objectives."

And, Bush said, he will listen to any and all suggestions members of Congress might have on how that mission and those objectives should be defined.

But even though Jones offered no alternatives Wednesday night, he did say that Congress would be increasing its role as an overseeing and advising body.

Already, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Peter Pace, were scheduled to appear today before the House Armed Services Committee -- on which both Jones and U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-District 7, serve.

"I'm sure there will be some very straightforward questions about the details of the implementation of the president's plan," McIntyre said. "We in Congress want some definite benchmarks of accountability."

But, Butterfield continued, despite the current debate, there is not likely to be any funding withheld from the expansion of troops -- even as the president prepares to ask for another $100 billion.

"We're not going to provide a blank check. We're going to ask a lot of questions. But I suspect that we will (give it to him)," Butterfield said. "Some of my colleagues will vote against it. I will vote in favor of it. We cannot do anything that would hurt our men and women in uniform."

The only hope, McIntyre added, is that Congress will yield enough oversight and influence to make sure the rest of the president's plan is carried out, the Iraqis are held to their promises and that the troops are brought home as soon as possible.

"We need to be lessening the American footprint and letting the Iraqis take more responsibility for their own security, self-government and ultimately, their own destiny. We have got to see a commitment from the Iraqis."