Tester reports progress in Iraq

Helena Independent Record

by Sanjya Talwani

HELENA – Flying into Baghdad this week, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., saw things he didn't see during his previous visit, in November 2007: lots of agriculture where before there were empty fields, and electric lights where it was dark, and heavy traffic on the roads.

"It's a much different Iraq today than it was then," he said Wednesday evening in a conference call from Yemen with Montana reporters. "The country is much more a country, instead of a country that's being occupied by us. Their stability is evident. … It was evident by the political leaders, it was evident by the people in the streets it was evident by the shops that were open."

Tester met with military brass, Montana troops and Iraq political leaders including Ayad Allawi, former prime minister or the Iraqi interim government and leader of the party that won parliamentary elections in March, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, as well as Christians who had been targeted by attacks.

Despite the progress, he said, the country has major security concerns. There are about 10 to 15 attacks a day in the nation, which sounded like a lot to Tester but is significantly fewer than just a few years ago when the daily total topped 100.

"The bottom line is still the same: We need to finish the job and get out," he said.

That means, mainly, helping the Iraqi police, government and military build stability, and using American political pressure to move that along.

"You can see opportunity for success and stability," he said. "And I'm someone who was very, very adamantly opposed to that war."

He said he got an honest, straightforward view from the troops and officers, but acknowledged that there's always more to see.

For example, he said he hears a lot about fatigue and post-traumatic stress disorder in Washington, and knows it's real, but didn't hear about that from the troops.

"The troops I talked to today, Montanans, they're rugged, tough soldiers, and I don't think they would ever would admit to me that there was anything wrong in that vein anyway," he said. "In that particular case, we may not have gotten a true sample of what's going on in the field for the troops. I do know one thing: They're proud to do their job … and looking forward to coming home."

Tester, along with Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I, and Carl Levin, D-Mich., the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, travels next to Afghanistan. It will be Tester's first visit, and could present a more difficult set of circumstances than he encountered in Iraq.

He said he understood the main reason for military action in Afghanistan is to minimize the risk of terrorism.

"The question really becomes for me… is what we're doing there really effective?" he said. "And it may be difficult to get an answer from that."