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CONGRESS'S WAR OVER THE WAR

In Georgia, Voices of Reassurance

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) enters an engagement skills training center in Fort Benning, Ga., where troops use virtual reality technology to hone their shooting situation assessment skills and to reinforce basic marksmanship. Isakson has spent the August recess talking to his constituents.
Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) enters an engagement skills training center in Fort Benning, Ga., where troops use virtual reality technology to hone their shooting situation assessment skills and to reinforce basic marksmanship. Isakson has spent the August recess talking to his constituents. (Photos By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)

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By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 2, 2007

COLUMBUS, Ga. As the Rotarians dined on fried chicken, Sen. Johnny Isakson shared a few thoughts about Iraq.

"Today, the news that comes back is pretty good," the Georgia Republican said from the podium to the packed downtown ballroom. "We're making progress on the military side and the security side. It is my sincere hope that we can, as soon as we can, reduce our troop forces, turn more over to the Iraqi army. But we should only do that when they are ready."

This is not a slice of electorate that is holding its breath, waiting for Congress to end the war. When Isakson suggested that the U.S. military could have a presence in the region for "a long time," no one flinched. They nodded at his depiction of the conflict as "the ultimate war between good and evil." And they put down their forks and applauded when he exclaimed, "To lose, all we have to do is quit. And I know the men and women of the United States military, and I know the heart of our country, and we don't quit!"

While many lawmakers have faced antiwar protesters over the past month's summer recess, in the heart of Georgia there are reassuring voices talking of a mission to accomplish and a victory that must be won. Many of the 21,500 new troops that President Bush ordered shipped to Iraq in the spring had come through nearby Fort Benning, and Isakson has shared the quiet but firm resolve of many of his constituents.

Congress will return to Washington on Tuesday and the following week will hear from the top American commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, on the progress of the war. As he spent three days traveling through northern Georgia last week, Isakson predicted that Petraeus and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan C. Crocker, who will report on political developments, would provide "real tangible evidence that the surge has worked, that there's more stability, a lack of satisfaction with the progress, but some progress on the political side."

That view highlights the challenge of the debate over the war's future. While the strongest opponents are demanding a firm timeline to begin troop withdrawals, many lawmakers remain ambivalent. They want to end the conflict but are leery of moving too soon if there is any sign of progress in Petraeus's report.

Isakson's brief tour around the state seemed to reinforce his sense that it is not time to give up. Democrats, he said, can count him out of any effort to force Bush's hand. "This date certain to withdraw and declaring failure and whatnot is unacceptable, if you believe in what we're doing. And I believe in what we're doing."

The senator's cautious optimism brought a wave of relief from voters he spoke to -- along with a touch of skepticism.

"I think a lot of our elected officials don't know what to do," said Marquette McKnight, a local businesswoman, after Isakson's speech to the Rotary Club. "I'll be really interested to hear the general's report. When we hear about the surge -- that means numbers to people in Washington. For us here in Columbus, who know those young men and women, it takes on a different tone. You're wondering, what is the truth?"

After the luncheon, Isakson visited Fort Benning, escorted by base commander Maj. Gen. Walter Wojdakowski. Their first stop was the site of a new infantry museum, still under construction.

References to Iraq came infrequently and passed quickly.

"We have 200 wounded soldiers right now in our wounded unit," Wojdakowski said as he outlined plans for a new hospital. He boasted of positive feedback he has received from the field about the camp's basic training regimen. "They're pretty happy with the guys they're getting and those guys' ability to go to war pretty quickly, which is what's happening to them today," Wojdakowski said.

Later, Isakson toured an indoor shooting range, where new recruits fire simulated bullets at a theater-size video screen that showed scenes from typical Iraq combat situations.

"In the last two years, we have really refocused our soldiers on their capability to use their weapons, more so than when we weren't at war," Wojdakowski explained to Isakson. "We learned that lesson with Jessica Lynch and some other things that have happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, that every soldier needs to be comfortable with his weapon. So we shoot twice as many live rounds as we did two years ago."

A film showed actors staging a "small arms struggle" after a makeshift bomb blew up a Humvee. "Friendlies, hold fire!" the soldiers shouted. They shot and reloaded, paused and shot again. The tally was 106 shots fired and six lethal hits.

Isakson quietly took in the scene, clearly moved by the soldiers' youth and determination. All Georgians, they were assembled especially for his visit. When the young men lined up to say goodbye, Isakson shook each hand. "Hi, I'm Johnny Isakson. Where are you from? Where did you go to high school? Thanks for all you do; God bless you." Looking at Wojdakowski, he added, "Good bunch."

The next day, as he traveled through northern Georgia, Isakson rattled off a series of recent developments in Iraq that suggested to him that the tide may be turning. Even a recent wave of suicide bombing that killed more than 400 people in northwestern Iraq, he said, is an indication that insurgents have become desperate, having been squeezed out of Baghdad and al-Anbar province.

Isakson added: "Whatever the case, I think you'll see some amendments in the mission" by the administration. "We all know we can't sustain the surge levels passed April 1, so you're going to have a troop change, anyway.

"I can't say what General Petraeus is going to say. But it may well be that you have a lot of sound and fury, and you get no legislative action, because of the relative success of the surge."

One touchstone for the senator on Iraq is Lucy and Rick Harris, parents of 1st Lt. Noah Harris, a former University of Georgia cheerleading captain and star student who struck up an e-mail friendship with Isakson. In June 2005, Harris was killed in a rocket-propelled grenade attack.

"Our presence here is not just about Iraq," Harris wrote in his first missive to the senator, six weeks before he died. "It is sending a message to the people of the world that freedom can be a reality."

"This is wonderful, it's democracy, it's what it's all about," Lucy Harris, a retired teacher, told Isakson over barbecue. She said that she had followed the war debate closely through news reports and blogs. She remains a strong supporter of Bush and the Iraq mission. But the feuding over policy, she said, "makes us more wise all the time -- even though it sometimes seems as though we are not. I try to look at the whole picture, every day."

"Aren't they amazing?" Isakson said. "Some of those days when I have a sinking spell, I pull up a Lucy e-mail."

In three days on the road, not one Georgia resident urged Isakson to go back to Washington and end the war. Far more typical was the pleading of Richard Monroe, the Clarkesville city manager, who approached the senator at a reception and said, "As a Vietnam veteran, I hope we don't publish a withdrawal date." Isakson shook his head and answered reassuringly, "Oh, no, that won't happen. This thing's turned around."


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