More troops heading to Iraq, says Nelson

The top U.S. military commander in Iraq assured Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and two fellow lawmakers during a Thanksgiving-week visit to Baghdad that more American troops soon will be sent to Iraq, the senator said yesterday.

“It’s not my prerogative, but I think you can expect an announcement in the near future that more troops will be going there,” Nelson said in a telephone interview from Omaha, one day after returning from a six-day visit to five nations in the Persian Gulf region.
patrick g. ryan
Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and colleagues are encouraged by signs of improved troop morale.

Nelson, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said he and Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who is also a member of the committee, had a “frank and confidential” discussion Thursday with Army Gen. George Casey Jr., commander of coalition forces.

“We raised the question about the need for more troops,” Nelson said. “I’m worried that we don’t have enough. Clearly, there’s a need for more American troops, and I hope more coalition forces as well, to provide security and restore law and order, and I believe it will be met.”

Nelson declined to say how many more U.S. troops will be sent to Iraq but said it will be significantly more.

The senators were encouraged by signs of improved troop morale after sharing Thanksgiving dinner with soldiers from their respective states. They also visited a center in Jordan where up to 3,500 Iraqi troops are being trained each month and meeting interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi as well as regular Iraqi citizens, Nelson said.

Ambassador John Negroponte, who heads the new U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, told the senators that even if constitutional elections are successfully held Jan. 30 as scheduled, U.S. forces will have to remain in Iraq for a long time, Nelson added.

“Ambassador Negroponte gave us a realistic assessment that things are going to be pretty difficult for some period,” the senator commented, “He cited the example of Korea, not suggesting that it was going to be 50 years, but not that it was going to be only 50 more months either. He said this is a long-term commitment.”

The dangerous conditions in Iraq were brought home in dramatic fashion to the visiting lawmakers when they were meeting a group of about 10 Iraqi nationals in the fortified Green Zone.

“We no more than got started when we began hearing loud explosions, and we were taken to the basement,” he said. The explosions were caused by incoming mortar rounds that killed four or five Nepalese soldiers, he later learned.

The senators left Washington on Tuesday last week, stopping first in Jordan before continuing on to Kuwait, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan and visiting a military hospital in Ramstein, Germany, on their return.

Nelson said he was “encouraged that the leadership is coming into place in Iraq.” But Iraqis, the majority Shiites and the Sunni minority, disagree on whether the Jan. 30 elections should be delayed.

“The Shiites are anxious to move forward to the Jan. 30 election, but the Sunnis said it would be a flawed election if they’re not able to vote in large numbers because of the lack of security. Both positions have merit, but they’re on the horns of a dilemma.”

Nelson said he is hopeful that Allawi will make an “accommodation” that will meet both group’s concerns.

The senators went from Baghdad to Islamabad, where they were told that Pakistani troops were moving into the lawless border region where Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding.

But when they went to Kabul, Afghanistan, the next day, they were told that the Pakistan military was being pulled back from the area. “It sounds like a 180-degree turnaround,” said Nelson, who has asked for a clarification from the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad.

In Kabul, Prime Minister Hamid Karzai said the recent successful elections “are the kind of success we’ve been able to have because of your help,” Nelson said.

More in Senate

Senators to Kerry: Give Iraq, Syria Christians refugee status

Read more »