Baghdad Embassy Has Its Hands Full With Hill Visitors

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 18, 2008

When it comes to hosting congressional delegations, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad likes to think of itself as the eHarmony of Iraq -- lawmakers outline what they're looking for, and officials try to set up the perfect date.

Choices include visits with home-state troops, bull sessions with Iraqi parliamentarians, tours of urban markets or military training facilities, and briefings from senior U.S. and Iraqi officials. A trip to the shrinking front lines -- Mosul is the summer's preferred destination -- can still be arranged for what the embassy calls "tip-of-the-spear groupies."

It is not known what itinerary Sen. Barack Obama has requested for his impending trip to Iraq, which will be his second. But if the visits of hundreds of other members of Congress over the past five years are any measure, nothing the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee will see is likely to change his mind about the war. Most seem to return even more convinced of the views they held before they left.

"Anybody who came in contact" with U.S. operations in Iraq "would come away impressed," said Rep. Jim Marshall (D-Ga.), whose 11 trips put him in second place (tied with Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island) for most congressional visits, or codels, since 2003. To ride in a helicopter and to "feel the heat, see the dust," he said, inevitably lends some perspective.

But "would that mean they think that ultimately we're guaranteed a victory? No. If somebody has been a pessimist about this all along, would their pessimism evaporate? Not necessarily. . . . I'm trying to recall an epiphany," Marshall said. "I can't."

Even some U.S. and Iraqi officials found Sen. John McCain's positive assessment of the "surge" in U.S. troops to be excessive after his trip to Iraq in April 2007. After his eighth trip, last March, McCain, a critic of the Bush administration's strategy at the beginning of the war, concluded that progress had been made both militarily and politically.

"It has worked," he said of the troop buildup.

Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), the congressional record-holder with 16 Iraq codels, said he became certain on his third or fourth trip that "we had really screwed things up" in Iraq. That was in early 2004. Subsequent visits, at the rate of three or four each year, allowed him to keep track of problems with military supplies and skewed budgets. In late 2006, he said, Marines in Anbar province told him the tide was turning against Sunni insurgents before, he said, the White House made the case.

Rhode Island's Reed, who is scheduled to accompany Obama along with Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), said the codels have been useful. "The more often I've gone, the more I've had an appreciation of some of the shifting currents," Reed said.

What lawmakers see in Iraq, U.S. military and diplomatic officials there said, is largely what they want to see. Most codel itineraries are fairly predictable. "They want to see the leadership of the MNF-I and the embassy," said an aide to Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, referring to the Multinational Force-Iraq. "They want to see the leadership of the Iraqi government. If you have an appropriations person, they're more interested in talking to the logisticians or the procurement folks."

"Newbies" on their first or second trip, an embassy official said, are the only ones who still want their pictures taken beneath the massive crossed swords on Saddam Hussein's former military parade ground in Baghdad, now a windswept expanse of cracked concrete inside the fortified Green Zone. While many of the visitors display deep knowledge of things Iraqi, embarrassing incidents have occurred. An unnamed House member, who met on a Sunday with the head of the endowment that manages all Sunni mosques in Iraq, asked him where he had gone to church that morning.

Although the relative peace in Iraq in recent months has not slowed the flood of codels, it has changed their focus. Once-popular visits to the western province of Anbar, the site of heavy combat between the Marines and al-Qaeda in Iraq in years past, have fallen off precipitously. Hardly anyone asks anymore to tour the area southwest of Baghdad once called the "Triangle of Death."

Members of the House and Senate armed services committees, who have averaged a trip or two each year -- the Senate panel's chairman, Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), has made nine -- tend to concentrate on the military, while those with foreign policy assignments gravitate toward politicians and diplomats. Walks through newly pacified urban streets enjoyed a fleeting surge of popularity last year after McCain strolled through Baghdad's busy Shorja market, even though some war opponents ridiculed him when it became known how much protection he received when he did it.

"They're all a big club and they talk to each other," one embassy official said. "They all want to do something cooler than the last guy did."

Most receive a standard 90-minute briefing from Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker. More influential lawmakers are given an audience with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, while others are directed toward more available Iraqi officials such as Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, whose excellent English and familiarity with things American have made him a congressional favorite.

The embassy is the State Department's only diplomatic post with a full-time legislative affairs division, and it is devoted almost entirely to managing the codels, which are closely coordinated with the military. The visits average at least one a week throughout the year, often with just a day or two in between.

Those on the ground in Baghdad try to set limits. Each codel must have at least three but no more than six lawmakers, with the total party limited to 11 (upped to 12 in the winter, when cooler air allows more weight per helicopter).

Two days is the maximum allowable stay for most visits. With transportation and the availability of officials on the ground factored in, schedules are kept tight. "The wild card is always the weather," the Petraeus aide said.

Mosul, a site of current fighting that is said to be the last redoubt of al-Qaeda in Iraq, "is safe, but we try to avoid it," the embassy official said. "The last thing a fighting unit needs is to have to pull off the commander and babysit for an hour and a half. They're not just dropping in on guys sitting on their butts."

But officials insisted that even the most extravagant requests -- one lawmaker asked for a face-to-face meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who sees no Americans; another wanted to sit down with radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who lives in Iran -- are considered and are declined only with regrets. Several expressed resentment at charges by war critics that they organize "dog-and-pony show" itineraries only to promote administration policies.

"We try not to say no," the embassy official said.

Graphics editor Karen Yourish contributed to this report.

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