A firsthand look at the ground situation in Iraq

Thomas Wise, a U.S. diplomat, shares his experience in the war-torn country.

Lindsay Guentzel

Just a week after significant Iraq War developments, Thomas Wise, a U.S. State Department diplomat, addressed an estimated crowd of 40 in the West Bank’s Hubert H. Humphrey Center about his experience working on a reconstruction team in Iraq on Wednesday night.

Wise, who was the head of the political and governments team from December 2005 to January 2007 in Iraq, addressed the relationship between the Iraqi people and the U.S. volunteer team in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, where he said the team worked with many different ethnicities.

COMMENTS ON THE WHITE HOUSE’S REPORT ON THE IRAQ WAR AND ITS WAR PLANS:

“Today’s report indicates additional progress has occurred since the initial report of July 2007 and reflects that the Iraqis have made satisfactory progress since January 2007 on nine benchmarks, including on de-Baathification reform which in the July report was assessed as unsatisfactory.”
White House press secretary Tony Snow “While I’m pleased to learn that some troops will be returning as early as July 2008, this plan will only return us to the pre-surge troop levels, leaving approximately 130,000 troops in harm’s way. Staying the course in Iraq with these high troop levels does not push the Iraqi government to take responsibility for their own security and destiny. … The surge isn’t only about meeting military objectives – it is about providing the climate for the Iraqi government to achieve political progress – and the Iraqis have not delivered.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. “The General brought clear and definitive evidence that militarily the surge in Iraq is indeed working. I share Gen. Petraeus’ view that we must continue the surge while training Iraqi Security Forces to ensure al-Qaeda does not undo our military progress, and believe his assessment that the ‘surge’ troops might be home by next July underscores the fact that progress is being made – and that America’s commitment, while long-term, is not open-ended.”
Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn.

“The people we talked to were always respectful and appreciative,” Wise said in an interview before the event. “They really engaged with us quite well.”

Provincial reconstruction teams are joint civilian-military units that support local leaders and empower provincial authorities by working closely with the communities they serve, according to a White House factsheet dated March 22.

Kirkuk’s provincial government nominated and approved 575 projects under provincial reconstruction teams, the fact sheet states.

While Wise, a Minnesota native, agrees with Iraqi opinion polls that state the majority of Iraqi citizens are in favor of U.S. withdrawal, he said Iraqi government leaders in the region were supportive of the team’s reconstruction attempts.

“Under Saddam, all power was held in Baghdad, and we were trying to push the power to the local levels,” he said.

He took the position while working at the U.S. Embassy in Copenhagen, Denmark, despite having a wife and small child, because he wanted to justify the U.S. soldiers’ sacrifices in Iraq.

“I thought I should volunteer before somebody got pulled in against their will,” he said.

Most of those who attended Wise’s speech were members of the community, with a few students in the audience.

The surge: A sign of progress or more of the same?

 President George W. Bush’s controversial military strategy of “surging” more than 21,000 troops to areas of Iraq, initiated in January, has made substantial progress in the country, the top commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, told Congress last week.

He recommended a drawback of surge troops by December in his report to Congress, which politicians – particularly Bush – have been anticipating for months.

U.S. coalition forces will eventually be at “pre-surge” levels of 15 brigade combat teams by mid-July, if lawmakers follow through on Petraeus’ recommendations, which Bush backed in a speech Thursday.

Force reductions will continue beyond the pre-surge levels after mid-July, Petraeus said.

Still, Petraeus said in his report that it’s premature to make recommendations on the pace of those reductions after mid-July.

“In fact, our experience in Iraq has repeatedly shown that projecting too far into the future is not just difficult; it can be misleading and even hazardous,” Petraeus told Congress.

Bush said Petraeus is expected to report to Congress this May.

Skeptics said last week’s developments allowed the White House to shift the debate on Iraq from what they called the failure of the war to the perceived success of the surge.

Brian Atwood, dean of the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, said a military person like Petraeus wasn’t sent to Congress to change the policy. Petraeus follows the orders of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Atwood said.

“The surge might have been a success by minimal standards, but the policy is still not working,” he said. “It’s just more of the same; there’s no real plan, no strategy.”

In the meantime, some Bush administration supporters point to Petraeus’s assessment of the situation in Iraq as a military insider’s account of successful strategy.

James Phillips, a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the Heritage Foundation, said that with last week’s developments the debate in Washington has shifted from U.S. military strategy in Iraq to how to create long-term political stability in the country.

“I thought Gen. Petraeus did an outstanding job on educating the American people of the complex realities of Iraq,” he said. “The administration is correct to tailor its policy toward the situation on the ground in Iraq rather than the political situation in Washington.”

The effects of the war, meanwhile, continue to reverberate locally.

Several University students joined protesters in an anti-war march on a route stretching from the Xcel Energy Center – the host of next year’s Republican National Convention – to the State Capitol in St. Paul Saturday afternoon.

Kyle Johnson, a visual arts sophomore and member of Students for a Democratic Society, said he estimated between 1,500 and 2,000 protesters attended the rally, which also served as a “warm-up” protest for the 2008 Republican National Convention.

“We are saying that we need to end it now,” Johnson said of the war, adding that the

Democrats in Congress lied to the public when they voted on a major war funding bill after riding the tides of anti-war sentiment into Congress months before Bush signed military funding legislation May 25.

“They can make all the excuses they want, but they lied,” he said. “This protest was a recognition of their failure last spring to (vote against the war) and their need to do that now.”

Andy Post, executive director of College Republicans, said he thinks Petraeus’ recommendation to start withdrawing surge troops shows that “we can prove there’s progress without partisan rhetoric.”

“The fact that most Democrats in Congress have accepted immediate withdrawal is not logical right now,” Post said. “I think that the president especially, and most Republicans as well as some Democrats, have showed some optimism, and we need to continue to do that.”

Democrats are expected to push back taking up debate on a major war funding bill from Oct. 1 to sometime in November, according to Associated Press reports.

Bush requested $147 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the 2008 budget year and, according to the Associated Press, he is expected to ask for another $40 billion to $50 billion for the wars.

The Iraqi government didn’t meet 11 of 18 benchmarks outlined in 2007 U.S. legislation, according to a report compiled by the Government Accountability Office. Overall, key legislation has not been passed in Iraq, violence remains high, and it’s unclear whether the Iraq government will spend $10 billion in reconstruction funds, the Sept. 7 report stated.

However, the rights of minority political parties in Iraq’s legislature are now protected – one of eight legislative benchmarks achieved in Iraq, according to the report.

It is unclear whether sectarian violence in Iraq has decreased since it’s difficult to define and measure, the report also stated, contrasting Petraeus’s assessment that the number of ethno-sectarian deaths across Iraq have decreased 55 percent since December.

Petraeus also notably said in his report that the overall declining “trajectory” of violence over the past three months in Iraq is “quite significant,” and the change in the security situation in Anbar Province has shifted dramatically – with monthly attack levels down to 200 in August from 1,350 during October of last year.

At least 3,783 U.S. soldiers have died and 27,936 have been wounded while serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom, according to Defense Department figures, as of Daily press time.