Back To Iraq

Sunday morning our day began at 4:00 am as we mustered our delegation for a 20-hour day in Operation Iraqi Freedom. As we approached the C-130 U.S. military aircraft awaiting us on the tarmac, we were issued flack jackets and helmets. We greeted our crew as we walked up the ramp under the tail of the idling aircraft. Next stop: Iraq.

1. Mosul, Iraq

Mosul is in the center of the Nineveh Province, which derives its name from the ancient city of Nineveh, the site of the events recorded in the Book of Jonah.

While this region is steeped in the history of the ancient world, our focus was present-day Mosul, which has become, after a difficult period of insurgent violence, a model for the rest of the Iraq.



We arrived at Mosul Air Field and were immediately escorted to an operations and intelligence briefing by the leader of the 101st Airborne Division, Brigadier General Rife, and his senior military and civilian staff. The story we heard was truly encouraging. During our briefing, and confirmed in later meetings with Iraqi civilian and police officials, we learned of a city of 2 million Sunni, Kurds, Shiite and Christians that is beginning to find its way to peace and prosperity after years of tyranny and insurgent violence. It was apparent that much of the success was owed to the lean forward Brigadier General who has transformed this area of operation into a success - but he would only reply, "I’ve got some awfully good men, sir."

As we spoke of the success that has overtaken Mosul since the initial violence subsided, our military leaders insisted that the real story here is not just American success, but the product of an Iraqi police force determined to take control of this city.

The police chief at the center of that effort is Major General Al Hamdani. Sitting down with the chief we encountered a barrel-chested cop who seemed right off the streets of Chicago. Except for his Iraqi uniform and his dead-on likeness to Saddam Hussein, the chief projects the seriousness of any American law enforcement officer. With the support of his force of 1,500 police officers, Al Hamdani launched Operation Lion’s Hunt. The goal of Operation Lion' s Hunt is to introduce a strong police presence throughout Mosul and to clean out pockets of insurgents hiding among law-abiding citizens. Al Hamdani put it simply and emphatically, "I want to prove to the people of Mosul that the people are stronger than the insurgents." So far his forces have detained dozens of suspected terrorists and the relative quiet on the streets of this ancient city attest to the widening success of his efforts.

We also met with Vice Governor Kashmala, the second ranking official in the Province of Nineveh. This Kurdish leader turned civilian politician spoke candidly, through an interpreter, of the challenges facing their nation and the urgent need for patience by the American government. When I asked the Vice Governor, "Who are the insurgents and why are they fighting?" he offered a lengthy and illuminating explanation.

First, he suggested that many of the insurgents were former members of the Iraqi military who "had it good under Saddam." He went on to explain that when Mosul fell "without a fight" during major combat operations, the former military element abandoned the city, "because they were afraid they would be arrested." He then offered that, after months passed without action being taken to find or prosecute them, "they returned" and a period of significant insurgent violence overtook much of the city.

Second, he said that trained terrorists were coming into Iraq from other countries intent on disrupting progress. Lastly, he reminded us that, at the beginning of the war, "Saddam released 100,000 criminals from the prisons" and suggested that many "quickly organized into gangs to loot our cities after the regime fell."

After our meetings with Iraqi officials and a quick tour of the base with General Rife, we headed to the mess hall for some lunch and time with soldiers from home. I must say that this time is, invariably, the most meaningful for me. While I value the word from our military leaders and Iraqi leaders, there is no substitute for lookin' a soldier in the eye, on a far frontier in the war on terror, and askin' him or her, "How’s it goin?"

I first sat down with Sgt. Russell Sanders of Reelville, Indiana. A big, burly soldier, Sanders exuded the quiet confidence of an Indiana farmer coming in from the field after a long day. I asked him, "What do you know now that you didn’t know before you came here?" He replied, "it’s not nearly as bad as I thought it was gonna be," adding matter-of-factly, "it’s goin' pretty good." Then there was Sgt. Thomas Therron of Bloomington who complained, as many soldiers do, that "there’s a whole lot of good things that happen every day here that never make it on the news." Sgt. Mitchell Gearhart of Carmel smiled warmly as he talked about the friendliness of the people on the street of Mosul, "especially the kids, the kids are great."

One after another Indiana soldier exuded confidence, humility and a generous spirit toward the people of Iraq. As we prepared to leave and gathered the Hoosiers together for a quick group photograph, I noticed one Indiana soldier standing off on his own, so I approached him to offer a word of thanks and encouragement. He hardly needed any.

Lt. John Johanningsmeier is a tall, clear-eyed soldier from a little town called Scottsburg, Indiana. Scottsburg is a typical Indiana hamlet just south of my hometown. To look at him, you would never guess that this young man was in the middle of a war zone…he simply beamed of confidence and pride that would have made any Hoosier proud. I asked about his family and he brightened even further, telling me about the wife and two young kids who were waiting at home for the hero to return.

As we boarded our aircraft for Baghdad, I couldn’t help but wonder at the courage and optimism of every soldier I met, especially the Hoosiers. Morale is high. They are making a difference in Mosul. They are succeeding and they know it.

I will pray for these men and their loving families, and I will thank God all the days of my life that America and Indiana still make men like these.

Just landed in Baghdad…..more later.

2. Baghdad, Iraq

After a dramatic approach flight filled with roller coaster style twists and turns, our C130 set down in the heart of the U.S. operations in Iraq: Baghdad. Stepping into the 110 degree day, we donned our helmets and bulletproof vests and were spirited to two Blackhawk helicopters, with propellers turning, ready to carry us to the famed Green Zone in the center of Baghdad.

Flying over Baghdad at low altitude is a study in contrasts. Sweeping beneath the aircraft are scenes of concrete homes and poverty, which suddenly give way to bustling streets filled with cars and people. One moment you are looking at the ruins of a building destroyed in some past battle and the next you see playgrounds filled with children wearing school uniforms enjoying recess. Baghdad has a long way to go, but Baghdad is a big city and there is a lot of everyday living going on here.

After touching down in the Green Zone, our waiting security team informed us that our meeting with Prime Minister-designate Al-Maliki had been moved to a new location due to a security threat…a reminder of the risks that this Iraqi leader faces every day and the realities of our present venue.

Simply by virtue of recent events, our delegation was to be the first group of American legislators to meet with the new leader of the Iraqi people. Our embassy team briefed us enroute to the meeting and were very interested in what insights the new Prime Minister might share about the government he was planning to announce in the coming week.

Prime Minister Al-Maliki is a man of some 50 years of age, with a dark complexion and a certain world-weary look about his eyes. He wore business attire and greeted us formally, but not warmly, with the words, "welcome to the new Iraq." The Prime Minister is a Shiite with a past filled with strong sectarian rhetoric, but I found him to be rather soft spoken and modest in this diplomatic setting.

As the leader of the delegation, I spoke first. I expressed our appreciation to the Prime Minister for having the honor of being the first group to meet with him and congratulated him on his election, noting, with a smile, that all of us had faced elections too. He acknowledged the comment without any reaction, so I got down to business.

I told the Prime Minister that we were all anxious for Iraq to succeed but urged him to move as quickly as possible in the formation of the new cabinet. I asked what his plans might be for the first "100 or 1,000 days" of his Administration and, while the interpreter finished, he leaned forward and began to reply.

His agenda flowed clearly and succinctly and made a positive impression on everyone in the room. He spoke of his confidence that the new government would be formed by the deadline he set of May 9th, saying "definitely, God willing" in expressing his confidence in the timeline. He then moved through an aggressive agenda of "internal and external" reforms designed to bring stability to the new government. After promising to form a cabinet of "reconciliation between all the people of Iraq," he said his government would "save no money or blood to break terrorism."

On "the first day" of his new government he also said he would take steps "to deal with corruption." He spoke of his intention to "launch a plan for the protection of Baghdad" and specifically mentioned his intention to confront sabotage of critical energy infrastructure, adding that he had "spoken to President Bush to help me on this." On the side of foreign policy, he said he would seek "better relations with our neighbors" on the "absolute condition of non-intervention in the affairs of Iraq." This unspoken reference to nations like Iran and Syria, nations who are aiding the insurgent effort, was punctuated with the observation, "we must show them they have nothing to fear from us."

As each of my colleagues spoke about the need for real progress in the formation of the Iraqi government, the Prime Minister closed our hour-long session with a word of thanks and a call for patience.

When asked what he would say to the American people, Prime Minister Al-Maliki said, "I would thank them for assisting the Iraqi people." He spoke respectfully of the "sacrifices" that American families have made on behalf of his people and their freedom. And he pledged to develop "Iraqi forces that can reduce the necessity of multinational forces in Iraq as soon as possible." He added earnestly that it was his "wish that the period would not be long so the American people can have their children home."

But he also concluded with a word of caution. He said, "victory is more important than time." He referred to our shared fortunes in Iraq saying, "we both have to succeed…success is success for both, failure is failure for both."

While the rest of our day was filled with briefings from our military leaders and embassy officials, there would be no more poignant or important moment than our time with this new leader of the "new Iraq."

I found Prime Minister Al-Maliki to be a hard man with a keen intellect who understands the challenges facing his people and the judgment of history that awaited his actions. I write this as our aircraft departs in the darkness through the skies of this war-torn country, but I leave with the anticipation that precedes the dawn.

These are hard times for freedom loving people in Iraq. These are hard times for the American soldier in Iraq. I choose to believe that this hard man, with a past of ethnic division, is the right man at the right time to lead this nation and heal this land. For the sake of the good people of Iraq, our brave soldiers and our future, that will be my prayer.