Abercrombie, GOP colleague differ on Iraq visit
WASHINGTON » Two members of the latest congressional delegation to visit Iraq have differing views of how normal the country has become since the so-called surge of U.S. forces.
Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., returning from his fifth trip to Iraq, said yesterday he saw "amazing" progress in the security situation and a sense of normalcy returning among the Iraqi people.
But Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, who led the delegation of House Armed Services Committee members to Iraq and Afghanistan, said he had no idea whether Iraq has returned to normalcy.
"We weren't allowed to go 5 feet," Abercrombie said. "At any checkpoint, once you pass it, of course people are living their lives. But it doesn't mean that two blocks over somebody isn't going to get blown up."
Kline, a supporter of President Bush's Iraq policy, said he was particularly impressed with the improved security in the Anbar province capital of Ramadi.
"The security situation there is just truly amazing. Just amazing," he said in a telephone interview. Kline said the Marine battalion commander there told the lawmakers that violence is way down.
"One of the great advantages of going is you can look and get a sense of what the atmosphere is," Kline said. "People are going about their business, the shops are open, they're walking around the street."
Kline said the lawmakers were greeted by children who laughed, teased and asked for money. Adults smiled and gave the thumbs up.
"Just a sense of normalcy -- people getting on with their lives," he said.
Kline, a retired Marine, said he thought the surge of U.S. troops helped, but wasn't the deciding factor.
"I don't think it would be fair to say that the surge is responsible for what happened in Ramadi," he said. "It just sort of reinforced it. It showed the sheiks and the Iraqis there that the Americans were committed. It helped tip it in our direction."
Kline said the surge was more than the addition of 30,000 troops.
"What we've done is change how we're working there," he said. "Now they're interwoven with, sharing the same building with the Iraqi security forces. And I think that has really made the difference."
In Baghdad, the group got a briefing from Maj. Gen. Joseph Fil, a senior U.S. commander. According to Kline, Fil told the lawmakers that while security has improved with Iraqis turning away from al-Qaida, there are still neighborhoods where fighting remains intense.
Abercrombie said the key question is what will happen when U.S. forces leave.
"Where we were, the Americans are clearly in charge, and the Iraqis are clearly in the subordinate role," he said. "But that's OK. The question becomes -- how do you make this handoff, and at what point do you do it?"