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thedrifter
01-31-06, 08:43 AM
North Coast congressman visits Iraq
James Faulk
Times-Standard

WASHINGTON -- Progress is being made in Iraq, but much more needs to be done, North Coast Congressman Mike Thompson said Monday

Thompson, D-St. Helena, was fresh from a weekend visit to that country, where he had taken a whirlwind tour of the U.S. military's operation there.

It was a trip fraught with security concerns -- Thompson described the unsettling routine of making evasive landings and talked about why the trip was not announced ahead of time -- but also one that revealed signs of progress and evidence of good work being done by American servicemen and servicewomen.

Thompson said he decided to go because he's concerned about the welfare of the troops, roughly 160,000 of whom are still stationed there.

”Also, I wanted to get an assessment as to how the Iraqis are doing in regards to their battle preparedness, so we can turn things over to them as soon as possible,” Thompson said.

Thompson said he also wanted to learn as much as he could about improvised explosive devices, which have wreaked some havoc there, to help figure out a way to minimize their damage.

Overall, the picture was better than it has been in the past.

”The good news is -- and everyone should take pride in this -- morale seems to be good,” Thompson said. “They are the best military personnel in the world and they are doing exactly what they have been directed to do.”

Also, the Iraqis are becoming better prepared to eventually handle their own security, he said, but much more needs to be done.

Thompson continued his call for a series of steps to signal to the Iraqis and the insurgents that the United States has no long-term designs on the country.

The United States needs to say that it does not intend to build permanent bases and that the oil belongs to the Iraqis, he said.

”I think we need to do that and I think we need to start making plans to get out,” he said.

An ideal time to begin the departure would be once the amendment period is over for the new Iraqi constitution, he said.

Thompson said he spent a lot of time talking to serving men and women -- everyone from generals on down to enlisted personnel.

One meeting with a general in Iraq painted too bright a picture of what's happening, he said.

”I was spun so much I was almost dizzy,” he said. “You just know it's not that rosy.”

After talking to people in the field, Thompson said he heard the real story about progress, but also about problems.

”They were very explicit about what the shortfalls were,” he said.

Thompson had lunch with 20 California Marines -- including some from his congressional district -- and the message was clear: The election is over, and it's time to start thinking about coming home.

”We can't continue to stay there,” Thompson said. “If we do, the Iraqis will never be ready.”

Thompson related two stories that show some progress on the United States' ability to protect its troops. While in Tikrit, he saw men and women welding additional metal plates to Humvees to protect against insurgent attack.

And before coming home, while in Germany, he visited a wounded soldier who had his jaw wired shut after being showered with shrapnel during an attack. While his injuries were bad, his life was spared by improved body armor, Thompson said.

”Had he not had the upgraded body armor, he probably would be dead,” he said.

Thompson is a combat veteran who served in the Army's 173nd Airborne Brigade in Vietnam and was awarded a Purple Heart. He voted against authorizing force in Iraq.

Ellie