Senator Reed heads back to Iraq this week to assess, analyze

By John E. Mulligan, Journal Washington Bureau

Providence Journal-Bulletin

July 3, 2007

WASHINGTON — Sen. Jack Reed will embark Thursday on his 10th wartime tour of Iraq, returning in time to help lead Senate Democrats next week in a fresh attempt to push the Bush administration toward a strategic change of course.

“You go out with a concept,” Reed said, referring to his view that President Bush’s injection of thousands of additional troops this year has failed thus far to produce clear progress in Iraq. “But you always have to be open to the situation on the ground,” said Reed, a onetime Army airborne officer who is part of an informal council of Senate Democrats who formulate war policy for their party.

Reed said he would set out with the basic purpose of examining whether Mr. Bush’s “surge” of added troops since winter has advanced the administration’s stated goals — especially the kind of security improvements that could, in turn, permit Iraq’s struggling government to better serve its citizens, thereby increasing its own stability. This will be the senator’s first trip to Iraq since Mr. Bush announced his surge initiative in January.

The insurgency’s apparent ability to adapt its tactics raises the question of whether the surge strategy has taken too long to get under way, according to Reed. If so, it would underscore the extent to which the war’s demands have pushed the U.S. military toward the limit of its ability to respond swiftly to such demands as Mr. Bush’s surge, Reed said.

Despite his pessimism on that front, Reed said there appeared to have been at least one noteworthy area of progress for the United States in recent months — the turn against al-Qaida’s forces by Sunni tribal leaders in the western province of al Anbar.

“That’s an important development,” Reed said by phone yesterday, “but it is not central” to removing a major obstacle to Iraqi national stability — the schism between Iraq’s Sunni Muslim minority and its Shiite Muslim majority.

Reed, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, plans to meet with top U.S. civilian and military officials, including U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker and Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of the multinational force in Iraq, and with Iraqi leaders. His tentative itinerary includes Baghdad and a strategically important area south of the capitol where U.S. forces have recently mounted assaults on insurgents. He also plans to visit the northern city of Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region.

During his periodic visits to Iraq, West Point graduate Reed has typically used his longstanding military connections to arrange meetings in far-flung areas beyond Baghdad’s Green Zone, the protected area that is home to U.S. headquarters and to much of Iraq’s government establishment. In addition to his contacts with the top brass, Reed stressed that the firsthand reports of middle- and lower-echelon personnel — including company commanders, senior noncommissioned officers and junior officers — are valuable sources of information on the state of the U.S. enterprise in Iraq. Reed also expects to meet with Rhode Island troops in Iraq — a staple of his visits since the U.S. invasion in 2003.

Reed said he’d also raise the following issues with the U.S. and Iraqi personnel that he meets:

•During a session with members of a provincial reconstruction team south of Baghdad, Reed plans to explore the progress toward rebuilding Iraq’s poorly functioning public works. This gets to a persistent theme in Reed’s critique of the Bush administration’s conduct of the war: the commitment of civilian resources from the State Department and other agencies has lagged far behind the American military commitment, in Reed’s view, frustrating efforts to build popular support for the government by serving the public’s basic needs.

•In Irbil, Reed intends to explore the comparatively successful Kurdish front in the war, as well as the potential complications of this trend. For example, he says he wants to know how Turkey — traditionally fearful of the aspirations of its own Kurdish minority to independence — is responding to the economic success in Iraq’s Kurdish region.

•Reed plans to inquire about the roles of Syria, Iran and other neighboring nations in the Iraq war.

•On another long-standing worry, Reed intends to explore what he believes is the failure of many sectors of the Iraqi government to set aside sectarian allegiances in order to serve Sunnis and Shiites alike.

Along with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and other colleagues, Reed last month announced a renewed effort to force the Bush administration to begin removing combat forces from Iraq. Their legislative vehicle will be the 2008 defense authorization, the military policy and budget blueprint due to be debated on the Senate floor next week.

Among their likely amendments is a Reed-Levin measure to require U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq to begin within 120 days after enactment of the 2008 Pentagon authorization bill. Reed and Levin said their amendment will probably include a nonbinding “goal” for completing the drawdown of combat troops — perhaps next March. Reed seeks a transition to a new U.S. mission in Iraq, to emphasize continued training and logistical support for Iraqi troops and police forces, along with assistance in rebuilding public works and creating political stability. That would entail the continuing commitment of significant U.S. forces in or close to Iraq.

As leading Republicans, such as Sen. Richard Lugar, the highly respected Indiana Republican on the Senate Foreign Affiars Committee, have raised doubts recently about the effectiveness of current policy, the Senate Democratic leadership has sought to muster bipartisan support for their war amendments. But it will still be difficult to generate the votes needed to override a Bush veto. Some Democrats, meanwhile, are pressing for faster and deeper reductions in the level of the U.S. commitment in Iraq.

Mr. Bush vetoed troop-withdrawal language when Congress attached it to a war-spending bill in May and prevailed in the resulting confrontation last month, as Congress granted him a war-funds bill free of mandatory troop-withdrawal deadlines.

Reed is due to return to Washington on Monday, the day the Senate is scheduled to begin debate on the 2008 defense bill.