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Had enough? 

A handful of congressional Democratsand N.C. Republican Walter Jonesstart the push to get out of Iraq

READ MORE: "Les bon temps (finissent)" | "The human side of the war"

click to enlarge Heide Kober of Efland joins the "Bring Them Home Now" march in Durham last weekend. - ALEXANDRIA MONTEALEGRE
  • Alexandria Montealegre
  • Heide Kober of Efland joins the "Bring Them Home Now" march in Durham last weekend.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Room 122 of the Cannon House Office Building. It's small—it's not a hearing room—and it's about as far away from the Capitol itself as it's possible to be and still be in a House office. No surprise, then, that this is the room Congresswoman Lynne Woolsey, Democrat of California, was permitted to use by the House Republican leadership for her "informal hearing" Thursday, Sept. 15, on exit strategies to get our troops out of Iraq.

Into this bandbox, Woolsey's staff have shoehorned an L-shaped head table with space for five witnesses and five MOC's (Members of Congress), with Woolsey herself at the crux. Another half-dozen MOC's can be seated along the front wall, behind the first five. Two dozen folding chairs are set up for audience and press. A handful of TV camera crews—one is C-Span—are tucked into the back corner. Standing room in the doorway, and out into the hall, brings the total capacity of the room to perhaps 65.

It's enough. "Official" Washington—meaning the Republicans and the Democratic leadership, both—is pointedly paying no attention. For the mainstream media, too, Hurricane Katrina is the only story, despite the fact that a dozen bombings in Baghdad on Wednesday, resulting in more than 160 dead and 600 casualties, made it the bloodiest day in the Iraqi capital since we invaded in March 2003.

So two questions are paramount. First, how many MOC's will show up and lend their names to the cause of ending—in some form or fashion—our occupation of Iraq? And second, between the witnesses and the MOCs who do show, will a consensus form about what the exit strategy should be?

The answer to the first question, by my count, is just 30, most of whom come and go throughout the four-hour session, greeting each other's arrivals with a nod or the special handshake of a small tribe in a hostile land. They are, in the main, the progressive names you know if you follow politics—Barbara Lee, Barney Franks, Marty Meehan, Dennis Kucinich.

And John Conyers, the Detroit MOC, who wonders out loud whether it does any good for the like-minded to meet each other this way, and whether it might not be a better strategy—for getting the public's attention, and Washington's too—"to begin impeachment proceedings against the 43rd president of the United States."

No North Carolina Democrats attend.

The biggest "name" MOC to drop in, however, is from North Carolina, Republican Congressman Walter Jones. He's the only Republican to come. When he hits the door, a place is made for him immediately at the head table, with Woolsey announces that the proceedings are now "bipartisan."

Jones, a cheerleader for the war in 2003 who now says he was wrong, earned national headlines when he co-sponsored the introduction of House Resolution 55, which calls on the Bush Administration to announce a plan for withdrawal by the end of 2005 and to start pulling troops out no later than October 1, 2006. The resolution, Jones says briefly, doesn't spell out a specific exit strategy. It simply asks that there be one—"that there be a fourth quarter," after which we can declare victory and come home. For Congress not to debate the subject officially, he adds, is "cheating the people."

Shortly, former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, who's at the witness table, salutes Jones as "a profile in courage" for speaking out and taking the heat from his fellow Republicans. "He has become a dear friend and a brother," Cleland says.

This from the real star of the day. Cleland testifies from his wheelchair. An Army captain, he lost both legs and half of his right arm in Vietnam, and he reads his testimony from a tall stack of paper—20 words or so to a page—by carefully removing each page with his left hand. Notwithstanding his military service and sacrifice, Cleland was unseated in the 2002 election by a Republican campaign that questioned his commitment to protecting America.

Cleland's message, in his testimony and in booming commentary throughout, is quite simple. Iraq is Vietnam all over again, "a no-win, no-end war" that was based on a "false pretext" and is doomed to fail. "Stay the course?" he asks at one point. "The course is to get more young Americans killed."

The exit strategy

How bad is it in Iraq? It's awful, and it's getting worse, not better, in the opinion of every witness and MOC who speaks. That's hardly a surprise, given the setting. Except that the witnesses include a former commander-in-chief of the U.S. Central Command, Marine Corps General Joseph Hoar, and diplomat David Mack, who served in the Middle East and as Near Eastern Affairs chief in the State Department during the Reagan-Bush I years. Hoar calls Iraq "the wrong war, at the wrong time, waged with extraordinary incompetence by the civilian leadership" of the Bush II Administration. Mack calls it "a quagmire."

Indicative of the disaster: Gasoline lines in Iraq are hours long, despite the country's great oil resources, according to Annas Shallal, an Iraqi-American peace activist and a Sunni Muslim. Electricity is at an all-time low, as is clean water, health care, security, the economy and every other thing Iraqis care about. They care least, he said, about what a new constitution will say.

The most damning testimony, though, comes from the Congressional Research Service, whose job is to serve up facts, but no opinions, to MOCs. Dr. Kenneth Katzman, the research service's senior Middle East specialist, says that the Department of Defense is reporting that 187,000 Iraqi troops and police have been trained to take over security in their country so far. Military commanders in Iraq said in June that 40,000 Iraqis are prepared to do so, with U.S. support. MOC's who've been to Iraq recently say they've been told by our commanders that the real number is between 5,000 and 10,000.

Katzman goes on dryly to report that Iraq is not stabilizing, and that the Sunni insurgency is growing in response to continuing attacks on Sunni cities (Tall Afar, Fallujah) by troops who are mainly Shiite and Kurds, backed by U.S. air power.

Little has been done to bring the Sunnis into a governing coalition, Katzman testifies, and they are more and more alienated from the political process, not to mention sick of being targeted and killed by a Shi'a-controlled government that seemingly—to them—is bent on exacting revenge for the Saddam Hussein years.

There's agreement all around that our worst mistake was disbanding the Iraqi Army after the invasion, sending 500,000 mostly Sunni soldiers home with their weapons and their grievances. A few fought back immediately. Two and a half years later, more and more of them are joining the fighting.

That's where we are. The witnesses are divided as to whether, if we start withdrawing soon, things would improve (Shallal), stay the same (Cleland) or get worse (Hoar, Mack, Tufts University Professor Antonia Chayes, a former undersecretary of the Air Force). All agree, however, that what we're doing now is fueling the insurgency, not stopping it.

So, to get out, they say:

Step 1: Stop Attacking. "Search and destroy ops must end," Hoar says. Chayes agrees: "You can't save Iraq by burning it to the ground." Our troops should pull back, and limit themselves to security operations and training Iraqi forces only. Stop trying to "crush" the opposition, says Shallah, and start thinking about "defusing it."

Step 2: Declare That We'll Leave. Iraqis suspect that we plan to stay, establish permanent military bases (in cahoots with the government we're propping up), and control the oil and reconstruction revenues. We must declare, in the clearest possible terms, that we will not establish any bases, Hoar believes. Mack thinks a "sense of Congress resolution" to that effect would be well-received by the world and the American public. (There is one—House Concurrent Resolution 197, with just 48 co-sponsors, however.)

Step 3: A High-Level Mediator. Maybe Jimmy Carter. But if not, then somebody who's not an American. Chayes emphasized that this would be about "small steps" at first, not a big public summit process that, for the time being, would be certain to fail.

Step 4: Bring Jordan In: Washington Congressman Jim McDermott pitched the idea of a peace summit in Amman. Mack called for a "contact group" that would include Iran, Syria and the other Arab nations. The main idea is: The U.S. must move to the background and have other nations replace us as the process of trying to establish a stable Iraqi government continues. One million Iraqis, mostly Sunnis, are in Jordan now, refugees of the war. Jordan's Prince Abdullah could represent them and address the Sunni's distrust, the witnesses agreed.

Step 5: International Reconstruction: The U.S., Mack argues, should transfer control of the billions of dollars earmarked for Iraq reconstruction projects to an international body, either under the aegis of the United Nations or some other multilateral group not of our making. Think they'd waste the money? It's all wasted now—half of it's wasted on security, the other half on things Halliburton builds that the insurgents promptly blow up.

Step 6: International Peacekeeping: Whether on a timetable or not, establish a process by which U.S. troops withdraw as Iraqi training goals are met (or, if there's a timetable, come due); the point is to demonstrate to the international community that their presence is required and the security situation is good enough to permit their entry.

Step 7: Don't Expect Success. Democracy in Iraq? It's not possible any more, if it ever was. Just try to avoid a "failed-state" outcome.

Shallal, who says most Iraqis welcomed our troops in 2003 and expected conditions to improve, now are so angry that only our total withdrawal will suffice to defuse the insurgency and allow a stable government—maybe—to emerge. That view is shared by some of the MOC's who sat in, though not all of them.

But the majority view seems to be that our troops should stay for security purposes, but stop bombing and killing Iraqi citizens, insurgents or not. The more we kill, the more insurgents we create, and the more we risk destabilizing the entire Middle East, which is Mack's worry.

The main thing, finally, was Cleland's point: The country needs to hear that our Iraq policy is a failure, and that an exit strategy of some kind is required from the Commander-in-Chief, George Bush, not just "stay the course."

Then, he argues, we can turn our attention to where it belongs, on rebuilding the Gulf Coast and renewing the fight against Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, the guys who attacked us in the first place.

Says Cleland: "It is time to seek whatever international support we can get, and turn Iraq over to the Iraqis. ... The war in Iraq does not have to drag on forever. It is not too late to learn from our own history.

"Why do I urge this course of action for our nation now?" he concludes. "Because I have seen this movie before. I know how it ends."


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