Congressman Larsen makes third trip to Iraq

Iraq is showing slow signs of progress, U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen said Monday at the close of his third visit to Baghdad.

Speaking with reporters on a conference call from Rota, Spain at the end of his three-day visit to Iraq and Jordan, Larsen said the security situation had improved since his previous visit in 2004.

"Progress in Iraq continues to be slow. But it continues to be progress," Larsen said.

Larsen was part of a six-member congressional delegation that met with Iraqi officials — including Iraq president Jalal Talabani — and Gen. George Casey, commander of the Multi-National Force-Iraq.

Congressmen said Iraqi officials stressed the importance of a continued U.S. presence there.

"All of them gave us a very strong message that they're concerned about the security situation," said Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio). "They need us to continue to help them."

"They feel it's very important that (we) stay the course," added Rep. Jim Ryun (R-Kansas).

It was Larsen's third trip to Iraq. The 2nd District Democrat also visited the country in September 2003, and October 2004.

There was a stark difference between his first two visits, he said.

In his first trip to Iraq, Larsen recalled how his group was able to drive on the streets of Iraq and travel just about anywhere in Baghdad. Security had worsened, and the situation had turned 180 degrees by his second visit.

It has since improved somewhat, he said.

Larsen talked with members of the military from Washington, as well as those from the state who are working on reconstruction projects, and others helping the newly formed Iraq government.

"Their morale is very high; they're very positive about the work they are doing," Larsen said.

Larsen was the only Democrat in the group of lawmakers on the Iraq trip, which also included congressmen Rep. Jim Saxton (R-N.J.), Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.).

Boehner said the trip had three major goals; to visit and thank U.S. troops, to assess the security situation in Iraq, and to give support to the national unity government.

The trip included a Saturday stop in Jordan, where lawmakers visited a training site for Iraqi police. The group visited Iraq on Sunday and Monday.

Other members of the congressional delegation also noted the progress being made, and emphasized that the Iraq war is critical to the war against al-Qaida.

"This is a part of the war on terror. This is the current place where we are facing them," Saxton said.

"The government is up and functioning. This is a really important, really historic happening for Iraq," he said.

Recalling a scene from the day before — where Iraqis trained by Americans were now training their fellow Iraqis - Saxton said some Iraqis will take the place of U.S. forces by the end of the year.

"There is a plan for disengagement. I would call it the training and replacement strategy," he said.

The reconciliation process between Sunnis and Shiites will be crucial to establishing a stable government, Larsen said.

"The training and equipping of the Iraqi army is going to be critical, as well," he said.

That will come with a cost, Larsen added. Right now, Iraq forces are lightly equipped, and the U.S. will need to help pay for military hardware as the Iraqis

"take the front seat on security."

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