McCain, Feingold Air Views in Iraq

By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 26, 2006

BAGHDAD, March 25 -- The increasingly rancorous public debate in the United States over the war spilled into Iraq during a news conference Saturday with two visiting lawmakers who are outspoken in their opposing stands on the issue.

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a longtime supporter of the Bush administration's Iraq policy, and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), who voted against the invasion and has spoken out against the war ever since, said they had come not to air their divergent views but to urge Iraqi politicians to speed up the process of forming a government. But during questions from reporters, they argued -- cordially and pointedly -- over such issues as the timing of any withdrawal of U.S. troops and whether their continued presence is doing more harm than good.

Feingold said he believed "a large troop presence has a tendency to fuel the insurgency because they can make the incorrect and unfair claim that the U.S. is here to occupy the country."

"I think that it's very possible that the sectarian differences are inflamed by the fact that U.S. troops are here," he continued, adding that their long-term presence "may well be destabilizing, not stabilizing."

Asked a question on a different topic, McCain quickly responded: "I believe that premature troop withdrawal is not in consonance with what's going on the ground."

With Iraq bogged down in sectarian violence in recent months while political leaders struggle to form a new government, debate over the American presence has intensified in the United States. Several visiting politicians, including McCain, have warned that the American public was turning against the war and urged Iraqi leaders to move more quickly in building a coalition government.

U.S. politicians traditionally avoid public disagreements when traveling abroad, particularly in war zones where U.S. troops are engaged. McCain said the argument was better suited for the Senate floor, and Feingold said he would "go into more details when I'm home." The two senators, considered potential presidential candidates in 2008, were among a seven-member delegation of legislators and governors -- five Republicans and two Democrats -- who met Saturday with such Iraqi leaders as President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari, and with U.S. military commanders.

Their visit came as more violence was reported across Iraq, including a terrifying incident earlier in the week in the western city of Ramadi. On Wednesday, armed insurgents burst into the classroom of Khidhir al-Mihallawi, an English teacher at Sajariyah High School, accused him of being an agent for the CIA and Israeli intelligence and beheaded him in front of his students, according to students, fellow instructors and a physician at a local hospital.

One teacher, who spoke on the condition that he not be named because he feared retaliation from insurgents, said that most students ran from the classroom but that some stayed to watch. Many stopped coming to school after the incident, he said. Another teacher, who said he moved his mathematics class to his home to accommodate frightened students, said Mihallawi had earlier been threatened because he worked as a translator for U.S. forces in Ramadi, a hotbed of the Sunni Arab insurgency.

Mihallawi "looked at us just like he was telling us that we do not have to be scared. Even as we were running out of the door, his looks were still telling us that nothing will happen and we do not have to be scared," said a student, whose father asked that his name not be used. "I heard him screaming for a few seconds, then stop screaming."

The father said his son has had trouble sleeping since the incident. "He always has nightmares and he always wakes up screaming and shaking, talking in his dreams," he said.

The mujaheddin shura, a recently formed council of insurgent groups believed to be led by al-Qaeda in Iraq, said in a statement distributed in several Ramadi mosques that Mihallawi had provided information about insurgents to U.S. forces. "Because of that, the religious committee at the al-Qaeda court sentenced him to death to apply God's punishment," the statement continued.

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