U.S. Rep. Brian Baird finished a two-day tour of Iraq on Wednesday and came away impressed with the progress he saw in the country’s ability to deploy its own security forces. He also came away leery of a plan to withdraw all U.S. military forces by the end of 2011.
Baird spoke to The Columbian from nearby Dubai, hours after a wave of attacks targeting security forces swept through Iraq. According to the New York Times, insurgents unleashed roadside mines and blew up more than a dozen cars, killing at least 46 people. The attacks came as the last U.S. combat troops withdrew from Iraq, leaving a force of about 50,000 to provide continuing support to Iraqi forces over the next 16 months.
“There has traditionally been a spike in violence during Ramadan,” Baird said. “Combining that with the anticipated drawdown target being met, it wouldn’t surprise anyone if there were an upsurge in attacks.”
Baird met with top U.S. and Iraqi officials, including Gen. Raymond Odierno, commanding general of U.S. forces in Iraq, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He also visited a remote site in eastern Iraq’s Diyala Province, where U.S., Kurdish and Iraqi forces are jointly manning a checkpoint. Three people were killed and 23 others injured in the province in Wednesday’s attacks.
It was Baird’s seventh trip to Iraq. The Vancouver Democrat, who is stepping down from Congress at the end of this year, drew fire from angry Democratic constituents in 2007 for supporting the Bush administration’s troop surge in the Iraq conflict.
”The first and most important thing is that overall, the situation is vastly better than a year ago,” Baird said. Despite Wednesday’s outbreak of violence, he said, both the number and the lethality of attacks is down.
“Frankly, the effort to take down the terrorist and extremist networks has been successful, and Iraqi forces are bearing primary responsibility for that work,” he said. “Iraq is a much safer place than it was, much more able to conduct its own military operations than before. You see greater professionalism among the soldiers.”
Baird also complimented the orderly withdrawal of U.S. troops and equipment.
“The numbers are staggering,” he said. “ Since June (of 2009), 1.2 million pieces of equipment, 40,000 vehicles, and 90,000 soldiers have left the theater with remarkably few consequences.” Some of that is due to the service of Washington National Guard troops, who provided convoy support, he said.
Yet Baird said the United States has business in Iraq that may not be finished by the end of 2011, the deadline set for total withdrawal of U.S. troops under a strategic agreement between the U.S. and Iraqi governments.
“My belief is that a complete pullout would be unwise,” Baird said. “The military mission won’t be complete by 2011, and I think we need to address that. The focus is on Afghanistan now, but we can’t afford to forget there is important work still to do in Iraq.”
For example, he said, the Iraqi military may still need help with ongoing training, logistical support and maintenance of helicopters and other equipment.
Sentiment among Iraqis regarding total withdrawal of U.S. troops is divided according to sectarian group, Baird said.
“The Kurds would prefer a longer U.S. presence,” he said. “There’s a general desire among Sunnis to have a sustained presence. It’s the Shia who are more positive about a complete withdrawal.”
Baird said he hopes President Barack Obama will send a message to the Iraqi people that, “We are not abandoning you as we continue to move forward on this strategic agreement.”
He also urged Obama to make the case with the American people that ensuring a stable Iraq is worth the price.
“The president has to say to the American people and the Iraqi people that there’s still important work to be done … and we are committed to make sure it’s done properly,” he said.
Asked why President Obama should heed advice from a lame-duck congressman about an unpopular deployment that continues to drain the U.S. Treasury, Baird said it’s a fair question. For one thing, he said, he is one of only a handful of members of Congress who have visited Iraq in the past year to assess the situation for themselves.
Second, he said, it’s important to remember the nature of al-Qaida and other extremists groups that continue to attack the country from within.
“It’s worth reminding everyone that we are combating an adversary whose techniques and ideology include torturing little children to intimidate their parents, stoning women to death, and bombing holy sites and civilian marketplaces with the intention of killing innocent people,” he said. “That is an adversary we cannot afford to let prevail.”