Burned and paralyzed U.S. soldiers greeted Rep. George Radanovich on Monday as the Mariposa Republican saw firsthand the price some are paying in Iraq.
“It was pretty tough stuff,” Radanovich said in a telephone interview from Germany.
The injured soldiers are patients at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, which Radanovich and two congressional colleagues visited on their way home from Baghdad. For the lawmakers, the hospital ward marked a sobering counterpoint to a quick war-zone trip that left several indelible impressions — not all of them grim.
Radanovich, for one, is coming away voicing optimism following his day in Iraq and two days in neighboring Kuwait.
“Despite what you hear about all the bombings, the city is going about its business,” Radanovich said. “They are buying things, they are joining their national guard.”
Radanovich cited, for instance, the confident words offered by Army Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq.
Radanovich and two other members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee shared a dinner of steak and mashed potatoes on Sunday with Casey, who dismissed suggestions that a nationwide uprising was under way. Radanovich likewise discounted the scenario raised in a classified National Intelligence Estimate — first reported by The New York Times — that Iraq could still descend into outright civil war.
“I really think that civil war is a big stretch,” Radanovich said.
Radanovich added that the soldiers he met with didn´t “raise a lot of concerns” about the overall Iraq campaign. These soldiers included Army Lt. Col. William Whitten, a California State University, Fresno, graduate.
At the same time, every closely guarded step by the three visiting House members showed just how insecure Iraq remains 18 months after the U.S. invasion.
Violence went on as usual
Radanovich arrived in Kuwait on Friday, the same day that two car bomb attacks killed seven in Baghdad while U.S. warplanes attacked the city of Fallujah. On Saturday, while Radanovich met with embassy officials and energy industry representatives in Kuwait, Iraq insurgents killed 19 Iraqis and wounded 67.
On Sunday, when the visiting congressmen flew into Baghdad for the day, insurgents kidnapped 15 Iraqi National Guard soldiers and beheaded several others.
“The fact is, we´re in trouble,” Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a conservative member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Sunday on CBS. “We´re in deep trouble in Iraq. And I think we´re going to have to look at some recalibration of policy.”
To protect themselves from trouble on the ground, Radanovich, Michigan Republican Fred Upton and Texas Republican Joe Barton wore flak vests and helmets. They traveled in two fast-moving Humvees, accompanied by Marines, and darted over Baghdad in low-flying Apache helicopters. They landed at Baghdad International Airport in a stomach-churning maneuver designed to evade potential hostile fire.
“We did this corkscrew down to the landing strip,” Radanovich said. “It was a bit like Six Flags or Great America.”
Radanovich´s trip coincided with a separate congressional delegation visit to Iraq this week. Antioch Democrat Ellen Tauscher, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, and Chico Republican Wally Herger, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, are among the six lawmakers participating in this other trip.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee, though, has distinct legislative responsibility for energy issues. This gives the panel special reason to monitor the Bush administration´s recent plan to shift more than $3 billion earmarked for Iraqi reconstruction to improve security and oil production.
“They need to establish security, first and foremost,” Radano- vich said.
At Camp Victory, about three miles from the airport, Radano- vich was able to deliver packages of Central Valley pistachios to hungry Marines. The Marines, he said, were departing for missions, passing by a sign that summed up their conflicting roles.
“Be careful,” the sign said. “Be considerate. Be prepared to kill.”