Tester reports back to Montana from Iraq

Senator sees ‘window of opportunity’ to begin withdrawing U.S. troops

(BAGHDAD, Iraq) – Senator Jon Tester says the U.S. has a "window of opportunity" to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq and shifting responsibility of the war-torn country to Iraq's government.

"I think we need to push the Iraqis to form their government and make the right decisions and meet the benchmarks that they set up and move it forward," Tester said Thursday evening during a conference call with Montana reporters from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.  "As long as they know we're here as a crutch they're going to move at a snail's pace and they need to pick up the pace a little bit to at least a quick jog."

Tester noted that violence in Iraq is going down—something he attributes to cooperation between Iraqis and the U.S. military.  Tester said now is the time to put pressure on Iraq to take more responsibility.

"The people who are serving in the Iraqi police now were insurgents 6 to 8 months ago. They were fighting against us," Tester said.  "They realized that we want to make this country a better place and turn it back to them. They also realized that Al-Qaida was a bad actor."

On Thursday, Tester toured Ramadi—in Central Iraq—where he ate lunch with several Montana troops and visited with Iraqi civilians, police officers and government leaders, including the governor of Al-Anbar Province.

"This guy has had assassination attempts—I think he said 35 of them—on him, but he's quite upbeat about what's going on," Tester said of the Iraqi governor. "As we drove through the city and actually walked through part of the city today, there were few buildings if any that didn't have any bullet holes on them.  A lot of buildings were really reduced to rubble. If a guy has a dump truck he might be able to find a lot of work here."

Tester also had dinner Thursday with General David Petraeus, the commander of multinational forces in Iraq.  Tester said he and Senator Jim Webb, D-Va., "quizzed" Petraeus for his opinion on troop withdrawal.  Petraeus told the senators he will report again to Congress in March.

Tester said Webb told Petraeus he understands the position he is in.  But Webb stressed to Petraeus that as senators, that they are in a difficult position too.

"People have lost a lot of lives, a lot of divorces, a lot of families ruined, a lot of money has went into this thing," Tester said.  "And we need to figure out ways to get this thing brought to a conclusion.  I think we need to start pulling troops out, no ifs ands or buts about it.  I think most of the people I talked to today agreed with that.  It's just how it's done and how orderly it's done."

Tester noted he has never called for an immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops in Iraq.  He said it would take at least 8 months for the military to leave if commanders were to receive such orders.

This is Tester's first visit to Iraq.  In fact, it's his first trip across the Atlantic Ocean.

"I'm not in any ways going to intimate that I'm an expert in Iraq because I've been here a day—that's not it at all," Tester said.  "I'm sure there's a lot to see.  A lot of information to be gleaned.  And I am not sure if I was here a week or a month I could get it because you just about have to be boots on the street, packing a rifle, to know really what's going on.  But you just about have to ask questions.  You try to get the answers as best you can."

Due to security concerns, advance notice of Tester's agenda in Iraq cannot be disclosed.