By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 28, 2007
After serving two weeks of reserve duty in Iraq, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) yesterday called for continuation of the "surge" of U.S. troops in Iraq and warned that any decision to mandate a withdrawal this year would undercut critical gains made in recent months.
Graham's comments come at a time when some of his colleagues on the Senate Armed Services Committee, including Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) and Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), are calling for troop withdrawals. Graham, a colonel in the Air Force Reserve and a longtime supporter of military deployment in Iraq, is the only member of the Senate to serve in Iraq.
"With all due respect to Senator Warner, the model he is suggesting -- to put pressure [on the Iraqi government] by mandating troop withdrawal -- is exactly the opposite of what we should do," Graham said in an interview after returning from Iraq this past weekend. "I believe the pressure that will lead to reconciliation will not be from what an American politician thinks but what the Iraqi people think. And I'm confident that the Iraqi people have turned a corner."
Graham, who wore fatigues and was armed with a Beretta pistol throughout his stay, also served a brief reserve duty in Iraq in April. During previous trips to Iraq -- both on reserve duty and on official congressional visits -- he said he had concluded that the United States was making "many mistakes" in its war strategy and was on the verge of losing control of Iraq, particularly when Gen. George W. Casey Jr. was the military commander.
But the boost in U.S. forces has produced more progress than Graham had anticipated, he said yesterday.
"The surge has produced better security. And if you mandated withdrawal now, it would undercut the progress we've made and embolden people who are on the ropes. Be patient. Continue to supply strongly economic, political and military support, and I believe . . . we'll have a breakthrough in Baghdad," he said.
The major change from his earlier visits was produced by a confluence of factors, particularly as the deployment of more U.S. troops coincided with Iraqi reaction to al-Qaeda in Iraq excesses in trying to control the Sunni areas, Graham said.
"We can't take credit for that. They tried to impose a lifestyle that is counter to what Iraqis wish for themselves," he said. The Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq even tried to ban smoking, he noted. "So it was a magic meeting of the moment -- with al-Qaeda overplaying its hand and [the United States] increasing its capacity."
The rejection of al-Qaeda in Iraq is evident in the decision by about 12,000 Iraqis to join the local police force in Anbar province since January, compared with only 1,000 in all of 2006, Graham said. He cited the willingness of Iraqis to participate in local security in the volatile Sunni province as one indication that the new security may be sustainable.
But the Republican legislator, who has served in the Air Force Reserve for 25 years, said the growing rejection of Islamic extremism should not be confused with minority Sunnis embracing democracy or national political reconciliation. Like Warner, he was also critical of the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
"In many ways, this government is dysfunctional, but it's not a failed state. They're still trying," he said. "If you went in only to talk to Maliki, you'd come away depressed. But if you get out and about, then you'd have a different perspective."
Graham predicted that Maliki's personal political flaws would be overshadowed by events on the ground. Breaking with mounting congressional skepticism about Iraq's future, he said that a new momentum from the streets to reconcile, stop the killing and reject both al-Qaeda in Iraq and Iran was reaching the point that "all Maliki has to do is get out of the way," he said.
Graham also said that the August break taken by Iraq's parliament, which sparked deep controversy in Washington, had been a "blessing in disguise" because so many lawmakers went back to their districts and "got an earful," he said.
A member of the Air Force Judge Advocate General's Corps, Graham worked primarily on detainee and rule-of-law issues in Iraq. When he was in a courtroom in Baghdad's Red Zone -- as some refer to the area outside the heavily fortified Green Zone -- witnessing the trial of two Iraqi policemen charged with building an arms cache to aid a local Shiite militia, a car bomb exploded and two mortar shells landed nearby.
"It's a dangerous place," Graham said. "I carried a 9mm like everyone else, and there were several times I was glad I had one."
Most congressional delegations travel in heavily protected security bubbles and stay no more than a day or two. In his second deployment this year, Graham traveled in Baghdad outside the Green Zone and to northern and southern Iraq.
No other serving members of Congress have deployed in Iraq, according to congressional sources. Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), a colonel in the Army Reserve, was called to active duty in 2003. But because of his status as a congressman, he would have had to resign or retire, so the secretary of defense rescinded the orders, according to Buyer's staff. Three other representatives -- Mark Steven Kirk (R-Ill.) and Chris Carney (D-Pa.), both lieutenant commanders in the Navy Reserve, and John Shimkus (R-Ill.), a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve -- have not served in Iraq, the sources said.