Gilchrest sees successes, great challenges in Iraq

After tour, lawmaker backs Bush's spending bill

October 19, 2003|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

When Maryland Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest recounts significant moments in his recent fact-finding trip to Iraq, he includes a conversation with Polish peacekeeping troops.

Several soldiers told Gilchrest that when they talked to the Iraqi people, they felt great empathy, having been in a similar state of struggle and hope 14 years ago, when Communist rule collapsed in their Eastern European country.

"They crave democracy," the soldiers told him. "They just don't know how it works."

U.S. troops, workers and officials can show citizens, oppressed for decades by Saddam Hussein, how to create a working democracy, Gilchrest said. He and his seven colleagues who made the trip, he said, returned with a common belief that President Bush's supplemental budget request is necessary to "finish the job and finish it right."

"Eighty-seven billion has to stay $87 billion," Gilchrest said.

He said trying to reduce the appropriation by offering loans instead of grants for some projects would send the wrong signal to the international community - and would be difficult to oversee.

"There is not a government yet that can receive the loans and distribute them in a fair, efficient manner," he said.

The congressman, who represents the Eastern Shore and parts of Harford, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, is one of many members of Congress traveling to the country in recent weeks to consider Bush's funding request.

He left Oct. 6 for five days of meetings with Iraqi citizens and lawmakers, and with U.S. soldiers stationed there.

He praised the progress he saw, noting 1,600 schools reopened and stocked with supplies, as well as rebuilt bridges, hospitals and widespread electric service, although rolling blackouts are still in effect.

"We saw an enormous team effort" that goes largely unreported, he said, "to keep people safe."

Improving run-down water treatment plants and deciding whether Turkish troops should be allowed into Iraq are among the range of nettlesome problems that remain, he said.

He added that, beyond war destruction, the level of neglect was surprising. He likened his meetings with people to talking with Cambodians after the fall of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s.

"It is clear to me we're at a fork in the road," with radical religion and oppression trying to force the country in one direction, while the international communities tries to "keep the energy electric for the people working there."

"This is what we're competing with not only in Iraq but in the Middle East," he added.

Gilchrest delivered messages from family and friends to members of Eastern Shore soldiers stationed in Iraq. Several, he said, were concerned about Tropical Storm Isabel's aftermath and how the American public feels about the soldiers' work.

"They are anxious to get back to the States to tell their stories," he said.

In the meantime, the congressman has been meeting with lawmakers, business leaders and constituents on the Eastern Shore to share his impressions from the visit, which included stops in several cities, including Mosul, Baghdad and Tikrit.

Gilchrest and his colleagues traveled primarily in helicopters or escorted convoys. They did not venture off alone and often wore bulletproof vests, he said.

The group was rerouted one day in Baghdad because of an anti-American street protest, which drew 3,000 people protesting the arrest of a popular religious leader.

Gilchrest said he was intrigued by comments from some of the demonstrators afterward.

"They said, `We thought this was what you did in a democracy,'" he said.

"That was very telling."

Town meeting

Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a 1st District Republican, will hold a town meeting at 10:30 a.m. tomorrow at Cockeysville Senior Center, 10535 York Road, to discuss his trip to Iraq.

"I'm looking forward to sharing with constituents what I saw in Iraq, and the extraordinary job our troops are doing," Gilchrest said. Gilchrest also said he expects to hear from constituents about domestic issues that will be before Congress, including adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare.

The meeting will be free and open open to the public. Information: Gilchrest's office, 877-891-9719.

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