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Trips to Iraq reshape war views on Hill

One-third of lawmakers have now been to Iraq. Many returning voice stronger support.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 6, 2004


Soon after takeoff from Baghdad airport, the big C-130 military cargo plane banked steeply. Inboard alarms had been triggered, prompting decoy flares to be fired to draw heat-seeking missiles away from the plane.

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No one saw any missiles, and the plane landed safely, but for US Congress members observing from the cockpit it was a sobering moment. "It made us keenly aware of the hazards our soldiers face daily," says Rep. Tom Osborne (R) of Nebraska, one of those on the Dec. 18 flight.

In a development that has received little public attention, about a third the US Congress has been to Iraq since May - and the trips are shifting the political dynamic on Capitol Hill about the war.

Unlike during Vietnam, when congressional visits often fueled lawmakers' opposition to the war, these tours of Iraq are tending, if anything, to blunt antiwar sentiment. In many cases, they are solidifying support in Congress for the military effort.

On one level, this trend highlights key differences between Iraq and Vietnam in terms of casualties, objectives, and military success. But another factor is also at work: These visits are more tightly controlled than those during the Vietnam era. Members don't spend the night in Iraq - a security decision some members say they regret, given the hazards of flying in and out of Iraqi airports. Nor are they allowed to roam the streets or talk widely with Iraqis.

"I think it is indefensible that members of Congress have been so restricted in what we do. If it means a member gets injured, so be it. It's part of our job," says Rep. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut, who is now on his fourth visit to Iraq. He and Rep. Frank Wolfe (R) of Virginia are the only two members of Congress known to have gone into Iraq without a military escort.

Still, lawmakers say that the situation on the ground is more positive than press reports had led them to believe: Schools are functioning, new construction projects are starting up at a rate of 100 a day, and troop morale is better than they had expected. While they also see problems, they're coming back on the side of doing what it takes to make it work.

Conversion of a critic

Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, the lone GOP senator to oppose the war in Iraq in 2002, returned from a two-day visit last October convinced that US action had been justified. Others aghast at President Bush's $87 billion request for reconstructing Iraq last October - atop of a $78 billion request in April - came back committed to voting the full amount. Democrats, who account for a third of 170-plus congressional visits to date, often come back determined to stay and spend what is needed to win the peace.

"It's important to see for yourself and to get some sense of what's going on," says Senator Chafee, who voted for President Bush's $87 billion supplemental request a week after his return from Iraq. He says that his visit convinced him that Iraqis were relieved to see Saddam Hussein toppled.

For Chafee, a telling moment came as an Iraqi passenger in a passing bus gave the military convoy he was riding in a thumbs up. The impromptu gesture struck him. "My head kind of snapped around to see if I saw what I thought I saw, and I did," he says. At another stop, an elderly Iraqi woman signaled the convoy by placing her hand on her heart. "I think it was a gesture of respect," he said.

While he's still convinced that the threat from Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was exaggerated - his reasoning for a vote against war - Chafee says that such observations support another reason for US action: that Hussein was a brutal dictator and that Iraqis are glad to be rid of him.