(Editor’s Note: From Nov. 7-12, 10 members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate visited Iraq. U.S. Rep. James P. Moran (D-8th) sat down with Gazette reporter Carla Branch and spoke about his trip, the timing to bring troops home and paying the bill for rebuilding Iraq.)
QUESTION: How was your trip?
MORAN: I came away with a mixture of inspiration and desperation that there is no clear way out of Iraq if we want to wait to leave until we accomplish all of our objectives there. The inspiration came from the troops themselves. It sounds almost clichéd, but, to a person, they are professional, purposeful, capable and respectful. They really are wonderful emissaries for the United States. The problem is that the longer they are there, the perception of their role by many Iraqis changes from that of liberator to occupier. And this isn’t just the perception of the Bathist loyalists who believe that they were doing fine under Saddam; it’s the perception of many of the people who welcomed us. As we have policies, for example, like the one that prohibits citizens from watching Al Jazeera and other Arab television stations, we just enhance the belief of some Iraqis that we are just there to get oil out of the country. We have our own television station where two bureaucrats sit around and talk to each other. Understandably, the ratings aren’t very high. What the Iraqi people have done is go out and buy satellite dishes and put them on top of their houses.
Q: So one of the impressions that you come away with is that every family has an AK47 and a satellite dish?
A: It’s an NRA paradise. There are guns all over the place, but it doesn’t seem to make them more secure. Not to get into banning assault weapons, but here you have a country where everyone has one, and it is chaotic.
Q: Did you get any sense that we are moving closer to handing over the reins of government there to the Iraqis?
A: Not as yet. What we did was to create a governing council, and the presidency rotates every month. These presidents wind up going around the world being wined and dined as president of Iraq, and they have done virtually nothing about their mission of creating a constitution for Iraqi governance. We need to just draw up a bare bones constitution and let them flesh it out. Also, we need them to elect provincial councils to show that we really are intent on turning over the country to their own indigenous leadership. For now, these councils need to be temporary because there’s no registration and no way to determine who should be voting. You could have thousands of people pouring in from other countries and voting, and there’s really no way to stop them.
I hope that we can get these temporary provincial councils elected in the next three months. Then they can be replaced if they don’t work out. We just have to get something going so that we can refute the charge that we are occupiers there wanting to control their oil.
Q: What’s happening with rebuilding the country’s infrastructure?
A: It’s coming slowly. Up in the north it has gone the best. We wanted to build roads, for example, and an American contractor said it would cost $15 million to build a cement plant. In addition to the cost, the company couldn’t get to it in a timely manner because the American companies have so much work. Finally, in desperation, because we had to get roads and bridges built, we turned to the Iraqis, and they built the plant for $80,000. There’s a big difference between $15 million and $80 thousand, and that $14,920,000 is U. S. taxpayers’ money.
The reason that we didn’t go to the Iraqis to begin with is because we don’t trust them; our own contractors want the business, and we go in with an attitude that we are the only ones who can do things the right way. The Iraqis are very well educated and are very capable people. They have been suppressed under a dictator’s hand, but they have always had the reputation for being good engineers and scientists. We are gradually changing our policy, but there are still problems.
We told the Iraqi army that if they didn’t fight us, we would keep them on. They didn’t fight us, and we still fired them. That left hundreds of thousands of people unable to support their families. We are beginning to bring them back and retrain them, but this just illustrates the types of mistakes that we have made. I thought it was a mistake to go in to begin with, but we are beginning to learn from our mistakes very slowly.
Q: What about an exit strategy?
A: That’s been one of the problems. We didn’t have an exit strategy and should have had one from the beginning. What we need to do is to bring in an international body like the United Nations or NATO and let them do some of this nation building. The whole point of this was to make the American people more secure, and we have done just the opposite. We have created a country of chaos where one can come in and set up terrorist operations. Saddam was brutal, but he kept extremists out of the country for the most part. Now, unfortunately, you have a situation where the U. S. Army is responsible for everything that goes wrong, and that’s not fair.
We could begin to develop this kind of strategy tomorrow if we were willing to give up control, but we are not willing to do that. As the president’s popularity slips, he may be opening up his mind to other possibilities. If the president sticks with his current policy, I don’t believe that members of Congress from his own party will break ranks and suggest something different on their own. Congress as a whole doesn’t want to be in Iraq. But for any number of reasons, they went along with it. The theory now is that we will be out by summer, but we will have to see.
Q: If we are out by summer, what will we leave behind?
A: Certainly not a stable country. There will probably be a civil war.