From an undisclosed location somewhere in the Middle East...

When I first visited Iraq in November of ’07, I flew commercial to Jordan and the Baghdad, crammed into coach the whole way.

This time, on a Congressional CODEL, we flew business class from Dulles to Kuwait, where I sat next to a mercenary contractor from KBR, the former Halliburton subsidiary accused of various human rights abuses and contracting abuses.

As we settled in, we started to chat and he asked me whether I was going to Kuwait for business or pleasure.  I responded business.  We are not supposed to tell anyone ahead of time about these trips, so when he asked what my business was I murmured "e-commerce" in response.

I doubt that he believed me, as I’m not a very convincing liar, but I don’t think he really cared what I did and I highly doubt he guessed I was anything close to a member of Congress.  People travelling to this area of the world have all sorts of cover stories for what they’re doing and have learned to respect the privacy of others.  To his credit, despite my highly suspicious answer, he didn’t press nor did I have any more reason to talk to him, so I delved into my book, Brothers by Yu Hua.  I didn’t want to take out my briefing materials on Iraq, lest my neighbor learn the true purpose of my trip.

We arrived in Kuwait around 5:00 pm Sunday night, had a buffet dinner and then went to sleep.  Since I tried hard to stay awake during the long plane ride, and only dosed for two hours, I was easily able to fall asleep and stay asleep through the night.

Monday morning, we met in the lobby of the hotel at 5:30 am and after a nice boxed breakfast, boarded a military C-130 for the flight to Baghdad.  The US has been flying these aircraft since the 1960s, and I was informed that the one we were on was built in 1967. (You can tell because of all the old school pressure gages and manual controls.)  The cockpit looked antique.  I divided my time between talking with the crew up-front and the troops in back, including one from my Congressional district in Thornton, CO.  It wasn’t the most comfortable flight, as wearing the heavy flak jacket and helmet really heats you up and wears you down.

By 9 am we were in Baghdad.  Two years ago, we drove from the airport to the green zone on the "highway of death" that, they assured me, had just cleared been cleared of land mines.  That was before I was a Congressman.  This time, we hopped in helicopter and 15 minutes later we landed in the green zone.

The security situation has improved tremendously in Iraq.  When I was here last in November of ’07 mortar attacks were frequent in the green zone, and indeed there was one on Thanksgiving eve a few hundred meters from where I stood.  Now they are a rarity; there hasn’t been one reported in weeks.

The city’s economic life is starting to return: cars on the road, power on (most of the time), and people going about their business.  It is a far cry from the extremely tense world of two years ago, and I am much more relaxed even while wearing flak jackets and a helmet and travelling through unsecured areas.  Last time, picking up on the general ambiance, I was in a constant state of heightened alertness knowing an attack could come at any time.  This time you can feel that an actual attack is quite unlikely to occur.  We still go through all the motions for a war zone, but they are now just precautions against the unexpected.

There is also a definite change in mindset among the military from when I was last here.  I couldn’t count the number of sentences that began with "When we leave in 2011..." a sign of commitment to withdrawal that, thanks to President Obama, is now inserted in the military political culture.  To be sure, questions remain, such as what are we to do with our air bases or the enormous eight billion dollar embassy compound whose guest rooms I enjoyed last night?  Still, the commitment is clear that we need to prepare for our forces to approach zero and to have no ongoing role in maintaining Iraqi security after 2011.

However, the "near zero" levels that are contemplated still represent 35,000-50,000 troops in 2011. The difference is that these troops would be a regional base of operations for us for operations outside Iraq and not to maintain stability in Iraq, and of course our presence would be subject to the permission of the Iraqi government just as our presence in Kuwait is subject to the blessing of the Kuwaiti government.

One of the more helpful activities we have done here is meeting with soldiers from our districts and home states.  They are not screened by the military and represent an excellent cross-discipline focus group for us to learn from.  I can’t overestimate how important it is to facilitate this relationship.

Most members of Congress really know their district and are closely connected with the people, one of the advantages of running every other year; I can learn a lot more from residents of my district in two hours than I can from, say, residents of North Carolina or Texas, and I am confident that it is similar for other members of Congress. We speak the same language, know the same people and share the same culture.  I’ve been to their high schools, know their high school teachers by name and even know friends of their families.  Meeting with these folks and seeing a friendly Colorado face instantly dispenses with pretense, and allows me to gather meaningful information and really connect.

I had dinner with five troops from Colorado in Baghdad, including an MP Ensign, a Petty Officer, someone from Military Intel, an enlisted mechanic, and two other enlistees.  Our two hour discussion was wide ranging from the challenges they face in their jobs each day to the veteran services they feel are important when they and their peers retire.  We even hit the current political issues of the day such as Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (all of them thought it was a bad policy and that gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve since we need quality men and women in our military) and the issues that integrated male-female units face and what they’re doing to ensure that diversity is a source of strength rather than division.

They were all 19-30 years old, and on their first or second tours in Iraq.  Afterwards, one said that he didn’t know what to expect and debated signing up to meet with me because he thought it might just be a photo-op, but was really pleased that I was really there to listen.

We have left Iraq and are now in a safe country. We were advised not to post about the trip prior or while we were in Iraq, but now that I have landed elsewhere in the Middle East I will begin to share my experiences.

Cross-posted at Daily Kos.