- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 9, 2003

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle remain committed to completing the mission in Iraq, they said yesterday, even as concerns grow about the number of U.S. soldiers killed in recent weeks.

“You can’t leave that job half done,” said House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican. “The president made it very clear that this would be a long, tough fight and you can’t make your decisions on knee-jerk reactions.”

The Pentagon said yesterday that the number of American deaths in Iraq had grown to 143, four shy of the total killed during the 1991 Persian Gulf war. Twenty-nine of the deaths have occurred in sporadic, guerrilla-style attacks after combat operations were suspended May 1.

Many constituents had asked during the Fourth of July recess about the recent attacks on U.S. soldiers, several lawmakers said.

“You do get a cumulative effect, and that’s a cause for concern,” said Sen. Ben Nelson, Nebraska Democrat. “When they begin to pile up, Americans begin to ask questions they might not otherwise ask.”

Americans are growing uneasy about the U.S. presence in Iraq, yet they remain committed to rebuilding the country as a democracy, according to a Pew Research Center poll released yesterday.

“Just 23 percent of Americans say the military effort in Iraq is going very well, down from 61 percent in late April,” according to the survey of 1,201 Americans. “So far, however, this concern has not diminished support for a major U.S. commitment to rebuild Iraq — 66 percent favor a major commitment to rebuild the country and establish a stable government there.”

Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat, had traveled around the western part of his state during the recess and said that many people had asked him about the Iraq situation.

“People want to know what this is all about,” he said. “They’re wondering why we are still there, and they’re very worried about the mounting casualties.”

A key problem, Mr. Conrad said, has been the shifting objectives over the course of the conflict.

“These guys are trained for war, not to run down burglars and stop looters,” he said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, agreed: “I think we suited up for war but didn’t suit up for peace.”

Nevertheless, she said, “Once you’re in there, you have to stay the course.”

Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, who has just returned from a four-day trip to Iraq, said he is concerned about the casualties, but that his resolve has been bolstered by a visit to a mass grave where the bodies of Saddam Hussein’s enemies were buried.

According to State Department figures, he said, more than 1 million people have been “slaughtered” by Saddam.

“That puts Saddam Hussein on par with Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler,” Mr. Cornyn said. “He needed to be stopped.”

Another worry, he said, is speculation that Saddam may be alive and trying to rally loyalists to carry out attacks against U.S. troops. It raises the specter in the minds of some Iraqis that the ousted dictator could return.

“People over there still live in fear that America will lose her resolve,” Mr. Cornyn said. “We have made a commitment to bring democracy to Iraq, and if we pulled out, it would be devastating.”

Sen. Chuck Hagel, Nebraska Republican, said he was particularly concerned by the recent attack on soldiers involving mortar rounds. “That’s more than just one or two guys. It takes a lot of people to launch mortar rounds.”

Mr. Nelson said he “didn’t think the American people were prepared for anything other than a swift victory.”

Asked specifically whose responsibility it was to prepare the country, Mr. Nelson said, “That’s up to the White House.”

Mr. Hagel disagreed: “I’m certainly not shocked by what’s going on over there.”

Either way, Mr. Nelson said, “It’s important to level with” the American people. “This is going to take years, not months, and it’s going to involve more deaths, not less.”


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