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News | Welch returns from tour of Middle East, Afghanistan

By Shay Totten | Vermont Guardian

Photos: Rep. Peter Welch meets with Afghanistan Pres. Harmed Karzai (above). Rep. Welch and other members of the congressional delegation are briefed by the military in Bajij, Iraq (below). Photos courtesy of Rep. Welch's office.

Posted April 18, 2007

WASHINGTON — Back from a whirlwind tour of the Middle East and Afghanistan — including two days in Iraq — and Rep. Peter Welch said he is more sure than ever that putting in place benchmarks to ensure a U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq is the right thing to do.

He also said his time spent in Afghanistan ,and meeting with Pres. Harmed Karzai, put in stark contrast the U.S. role in Iraq versus its role in Afghanistan.

Welch, a Democrat, returned to the United States at 3 p.m. on Monday, calling the differences between the U.S. roles Iraq and Afghanistan were “dramatic.”

“I met three soldiers who had served full tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan and I asked them what’s the difference and each gave me pretty much the same answer: In Iraq, people are more interested in fighting each other and in Afghanistan people are interested in fighting for their future. That was a conclusion I was coming to and these soldiers with their direct experience really brought it home,” said Welch.

That sentiment was then further reinforced in a private, 45-minute meeting the six-member delegation had with Pres. Karzai.

“He told us the difference is that his government has legitimacy but not efficiency to deliver the goods, while in Iraq political leaders are in gridlock and failing to make basic agreements to ensure legitimacy of the government,” said Welch.

Welch also said with the withdrawal of British troops, the United States will stand alone in Iraq. While in Afghanistan there are 37 countries involved in the rebuilding efforts.

“When we passed the supplemental bill we boosted the money going to Afghanistan, and that’s because the war on terror is more there than in Iraq,” said Welch.

Yet, Welch acknowledges that it is the Iraqi leadership that has to take control of the country to secure its future, and that the ongoing U.S. presence is making things worse.

“We need to restore accountability and replace the blank check with date certain that is enforceable by law — that is what will light a fire under the Iraqis and the president,” said Welch.

More pressure also needs to be placed on Iraqi leaders to step up their control over the security in Iraq, as well as running the government and delivering on basic services, such as water and electricity.

To do so, they may have to call back into government many of the civil servants who were thrown out in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s ouster from power, and clamp down on the growing sectarianism in the country, Welch said.

This week, powerful Shi’a cleric Muqtada al Sadr pulled his cabinet ministers out of the coalition government led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, but he did not pull about 30 members out of parliament.

Al Sadr pulled out his coalition members from the cabinet to protest what he said is a growing demand for a U.S. troop withdrawal, and a greater assurance of security in the country.

“This should be relevant to Pres. [George W.] Bush. The Iraqi people, when polled, say they don’t want us and what’s more alarming is that more than 60 percent of Iraqis approve of killing Americans. Our troops are in mortal danger every day — even in the green zone,” said Welch.

Welch spent Wednesday night in Baghdad in the fortified “green zone” and left Thursday morning just hours before the Iraqi parliament building was bombed. At the time of the bombing, the delegation was in the Kurdish region of the country.

Welch said the bombing, and the delegation’s stay in Baghdad, were a reminder that Iraq is still dangerous, even in the parts of Baghdad where a new security crackdown is being conducted by U.S. and Iraqi forces.

In a previous interview, Welch said he believed that the U.S. military is being asked to take on too many roles as part of the onging occupation and reconstruction efforts in Iraq.

“What we are asking is too much of our military: We are asking them to referee a civil war, create a civil society, and oversee these reconstruction efforts,” Welch told reporters on April 12. “I think that it’s time for the Iraqi people and the Iraqi government to assume some responsibility for the future of their country.”

Iraq’s coffers are filling up with revenues from oil production, and that money should be tapped to fund reconstruction efforts, not U.S. tax dollars. It’s only right that the Iraqis should now fund and take control of the reconstruction efforts, rather than the U.S. military or a multi-national force, he noted.

Welch toured the Middle East with five other members of the House National Affairs and Security Subcommittee, which is a subcommittee of the House Government Oversight and Reform Committee. Committee members were in the region to see firsthand reconstruction efforts in various parts of Iraq, meet with top military and political leaders in the region, determine the willingness of Iraqis to take on more of the rebuilding chores, and discuss efforts to thwart terrorist financing with Arab allies.

“The trip was extraordinarily valuable,” said Welch. “When you’re here you get to read extensively about what’s going on, and you get to meet people who have been there, but by having this firsthand experience we can apply that judgment to the work we’re doing here from what we learned by being on the ground.”

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