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.
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.
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.
Such random encounters with Iraqis are a far cry from the expansive range of local contacts available to Vietnam-era lawmakers. During a seven-day trip into the Vietnamese countryside in February 1968, Sen. Joseph Clark (D) met with a wide range of Vietnamese "opinion makers." He came back convinced that the war was headed for stalemate. The "kill ratios" favored by US military commanders to measure progress in the war "do not gauge either an enemy's capabilities or intentions," he wrote to Congress.
Today's congressional visitors mainly talk to other Americans. Typically, they are briefed on arrival by Ambassador L. Paul Bremer and other US officials, then taken in heavily protected convoys to secured sites, such as oil refineries, power plants, hospitals, or schools. Visits with soldiers from a member's district are arranged. Whenever possible, members stop at a mass grave site of Saddam Hussein's victims.
"You'd never seen so many quiet members of Congress in your life when they'd see that [grave site]. That would bring it home what we were doing there in one little hour visit," says Tom Korologos, until recently a senior counselor to Mr. Bremer arranging such tours.
The Pentagon is promoting congressional visits, and House GOP leaders have asked every Republican member to visit Iraq as soon as possible. "Secretary Rumsfeld has encouraged members very strongly to go to Iraq. He believes that when they go there and examine the situation, they're more likely to be supportive," says Powell Moore, assistant secretary for legislative affairs in the Pentagon.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who voted against force in Iraq, is not encouraging Democrats to visit Iraq, but "neither is she discouraging it," says a Democratic leadership aide. "Members have been encouraged to visit the wounded at the Walter Reed [Army Medical Center]."
Members of Congress visiting Iraq say they want to have more direct contact with locals, but it's not possible because of security constraints. "Congressional delegations are moving targets, and very conspicuous ones at that. We don't want to make our military's job any harder than it is," says Sen. Richard Lugar [R] of Indiana, chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee.
Preparing sites for a congressional visit can involve from 200 to 300 soldiers. Members' days begin at 4 or 5 a.m. and go on past 11 p.m. They spend the night in Kuwait and generally return for a second day. Many return with criticisms: Not enough armored vehicles, inadequate body armor for National Guard and reservists, not enough US troops - or the wrong mix of troops. "We need a bigger presence," said Sen. Hillary Clinton (D) of New York, after returning from a Thanksgiving visit. "What I learned from my trip is that we are disproportionately depending on National Guard and reservists, and that really worries me," says Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D) of California.
But so far, no members of Congress are coming back saying that the US should pull out of Iraq. Many going in with doubts return to vote with the White House. After a two-day visit in October, a delegation of GOP moderates voted to support the president on a key vote to send $20 billion to Iraq as a grant, rather than a loan. "One [US] general told us that money is ammunition. US troops will be a lot more secure when Iraqis have jobs," said Rep. Amo Houghton (R ) of New York, one of six House Republicans to vote in 2002 against the use of force in Iraq.
But critics say these highly restricted trips reflect a pattern of inadequate congressional oversight since the 2002 vote to authorize use of force in Iraq. "Members of Congress [in Iraq] are being led and briefed by the very people they are investigating, then they are whisked home. That's not oversight. It just underscores the total absence of critical thought," says Ivo Daalder, a Brookings Institution senior fellow and former Clinton administration official.