For Rhode Island's Reed, codels are solitary affairs

KUWAIT CITY — During the Easter Week recess, when three other congressional delegations, consisting of 21 senators and House members, were visiting Iraq, the codel led by Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), was conspicuous for several reasons.

First, Reed, a West Point graduate and former company commander in the 82nd Airborne, was the only member of Congress in his codel.

Second, instead of traveling with a battalion of aides like those with the other codels, he was accompanied only by his legislative assistant for military and foreign affairs, Elizabeth King; Lt. Col. Vic Samuel, an Army legislative liaison officer; and John Mulligan, the Washington bureau chief of the Providence Journal .

Third, instead of flying into Baghdad for a few hours of official briefings and then flying to Jordan or Kuwait at day’s end, Reed spent the better part of four days hopscotching across Iraq, often aboard Blackhawk helicopters manned by National Guard units from Rhode Island; meeting with troops in some of the most dangerous parts of Iraq; and questioning top U.S. military and diplomatic officials, and Iraqi security forces as well.

Fourth, Reed — unlike Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) — wasn’t making his first visit to this war-torn country, where some 150,000 American troops and 24,000 troops from 23 other member nations of the U.S.-led multinational coalition are battling Muslim insurgents and terrorists while trying to help create a new government and rebuild Iraq’s shattered infrastructure.

And finally, none of the other congressional visitors can claim to have attended the U.S. Military Academy with Gen. John Abizaid, the overall commander of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region, or served in the Army with Maj. Gen. William Brandenburg, who oversees detainee operations in Iraq, including the infamous Abu Ghraib prison.

This was the fifth visit to Iraq for Reid, a 55-year-old Harvard lawyer and former instructor at West Point. All but the first, in 2002, have been solo affairs. And it may have been that one that convinced Reed to shun multimember codels.

He was traveling with a half-dozen other senators to Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan and nearing the end of the long, exhausting trip when the other members decided they didn’t want to get up early the next morning to visit an Army special forces unit near the Pakistan border.

But Reed insisted they go, he recalled during an early-morning interview here before returning to the United States on Monday. “I got a little annoyed because these troops were expecting us to come.”

Reed said he feels he can learn more about the actual progress, or lack of it, by traveling alone.

“You can see a lot of places you couldn’t necessarily go with others” because of security needs, he said as he wolfed down a breakfast of baked beans, scrambled eggs, fried potatoes and olives. “It helps me to be able to do it on my own. You can’t substitute firsthand experience.”

He added, “I like to characterize myself as someone who comes out here on a fairly frequent basis to look at what’s happening on the ground and then reach judgments about what we can do to succeed.”

Reed always makes it a point to visit troops from his native state. There are about 400 in Iraq, and he visited many of them, including Army troops in Baghdad, Marines in Fallujah, the helicopter crews and a field artillery unit in Mosul, and soldiers at a remote desert base in Kuwait.

Reed, a member of the Armed Services Committee, makes no apologies for being a critic of the administration’s policy in Iraq, and to a lesser extent, Afghanistan.

“My job is to be critical about what’s going on and what needs to be improved,” he said, adding, “I think my criticism has been accurate, certainly in the operations in the region, in that we didn’t organize ourselves for the appropriate occupation and stabilization” after Saddam Hussein was toppled, which happened two years ago this month.

“It took a long time to get the needed equipment in here for our troops. We made some serious errors in terms of de-Baathification efforts, rather than trying to incorporate the Sunnis, and disbanding the Iraq Army. There’s a litany of problems.”

And although Reed has high praise for the military effort here, he added, “You have to understand that this is not over yet, militarily. And the notion that everything’s fine disregards the resilience of this insurgency and the deep-seated political, historical and social forces that are at work.

“I think one of the greatest errors and misjudgments would be at this point, so to speak, to get out, because the area has one or two months of relative quiet — this is a long-term effort, and, in a way, the hardest part, even now, is to revamp an economic and political structure that doesn’t have that many democratic tendencies.”

Reed said Iraq has been “brought right back to almost where we began two years ago. And now we have the obligation to reinforce military success with political and economic progress, and the question is, do we have the resources and the capability to do that?”

Reed also said he feels that civilian agencies haven’t done enough to rebuild Iraq’s battered infrastructure by providing “the soft power that you need to stabilize the country.”

“This is a major effort,” he declared. “We’ve got to get it right. There are things that we’re doing very well and again I’d say that if we don’t, if we take our eye off the ball, we could find ourselves right back where we were six months or a year ago. This place has the annoying habit of every time you turn the corner, there’s another corner. We might be turning the corner, but watch out.”