Tester optimistic about progress in Iraq

Great Falls Tribune

by Kimball Bennion

Fresh from a two-day visit to Iraq, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., spoke optimistically Wednesday about progress there since he first visited in 2007.

However, he expressed reservations about U.S. involvement in Afghanistan as he prepared to visit that country for the first time later this week.

“The plan is set for Iraq, it’s not so set for Afghanistan,” Tester said in a conference call from the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a, Yemen.

Tester, along with Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich. and Jack Reed, D-R.I., began his trip at the beginning of the week in a visit meant to assess military missions in two war zones while meeting with military and political leaders in the countries. He also met with Montana troops.

Tester, a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, met with soldiers from the Belgrade-based 163rd Combined Arms Battalion of the Army National Guard while in Iraq. He praised the state’s service members and veterans, and credited them for the positive changes he saw in a war he opposed.

“They really deserve the credit, because it wouldn’t have happened otherwise,” he said.

Tester spoke of measured progress in Iraq, but stressed the importance of pressing political leaders there to take control of the country in anticipation of the U.S. military’s drawdown deadline of Dec. 31.

“Iraqis still have some work to do to take control of their country,” Tester said.

He reported that the main concern among military leaders there is being able to get security and police forces adequately trained for taking control against insurgent attacks in their country that, while less frequent, still are a violent reality. Tester said the number of insurgent attacks has gone down from about 100 per day a few years ago to 10 to 15 per day.

Tuesday’s terrorist attack on Iraqi police recruits, which killed up to 14 people, along with recent attacks on Christians in the country, signals a shift in insurgents attacking high-profile targets and minorities, Tester said.

“They pick their spots whereby they can get the most attention when they happen,” he said. “They do happen, and they will continue to happen for awhile.”

Tester also mentioned the progress he saw in Iraq compared with the first time he visited the country in November 2007. He said he saw more agriculture where he last saw barren fields. Other things such as traffic jams and open marketplaces also were encouraging signs of progress, he said.

“It’s a much different Iraq today than it was then, that’s for sure,” Tester said. “I don’t think it’s mission accomplished yet. … The goal right now is to get a country that’s stable.”

Tester had less to say about the rest of his trip as he looks ahead to his visit to Afghanistan, noting it was hard to say what legislative goals he would formulate until he sees conditions there. He did say that many more “tough questions” are in store for that visit.

“The question really becomes for me: Is what we’re doing there really effective?” Tester said. “We’ll be pressing folks on that very, very hard.”