From thousands of miles away, U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam, R-6th District, sat down last weekend for a chat with a few of his constituents.
During a four-day trip to Iraq with five other U.S. representatives from both parties, Roskam hosted a tele-town hall during which about 6,000 people listened as Roskam answered a few dozen questions about what he had seen of the situation in Iraq.
Constituents were contacted via telephone before the conference began Saturday, July 28, and were invited to participate. Those who opted to dial in had the chance to ask Roskam a question. Eighteen were selected to speak.
During the 2 p.m. teleconference 11 p.m. Iraqi time Roskam described what he saw as an intricate and complicated situation in Iraq, as conflicting interests from groups within the country and neighboring nations converge.
"Iraq is obviously in the context of other pressures, right other pressures from Syria, from Iran, internal pressures," Roskam said during the teleconference. "They're not necessarily philosophically driven. They're driven by power and the desire to maintain power."
The questions posed to Roskam represented a range of positions on the war: Some expressed frustration about the ongoing toll while others offered steadfast hope that a resolution can be reached.
"I remember when President Reagan was running for office," said Judith Vonalmen of Medinah, "and he said, Never again. Never again will we commit our young people to a war that we don't intend to win.' And I just hope that this country will pull together and win this war."
Arnold Clark of Oak Brook also expressed concern about what end the conflict will reach, and he asked if there was any "honorable way to disengage" from a war he believed the United States "should have never started." Is the surge, he asked, a viable solution?
"There is a limitation to what we're able to accomplish," Roskam responded, "and my sense is there's a political reality on the ground in that the public is growing weary of this obligation."
This weekend's visit to Iraq coincided with the beginning of the Iraqi Parliament's summer break, which has elicited criticism in the United States, including from a caller Saturday who wanted to know how the troops were handling the summer desert heat that drove the parliament into recess.
Roskam described the parliament's month-long break as "outrageous," and he said it conflicted with his philosophy of governance.
"The legislatures stays together, whether it's the Illinois General Assembly or the United States Congress," he said. "You go there and you get the job done and you don't finish until the job is done."
Because of security concerns, details of the trip, such as exactly where in Iraq the representatives visited, were not available before press time.
Roskam flew into Iraq Friday, July 27, via a military transport plane from Kuwait. The plane was filled with troops, he said, and when they landed it was 119 degrees on the tarmac.
"The physical experience of being next to these young men and women and seeing the battle gear that they have on, the things that we're asking them to do, it's really a humbling thing," Roskam said.
During the trip to Iraq the group of representatives met with Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq. Roskam spoke briefly of the meeting and offered praise for Petraeus.
Since he was appointed commander of forces in Iraq, Petraeus has been publicly touted as an expert on quelling an insurgency. He quite literally wrote the book on counterterrorism; last year Petraeus co-authored the most recent revision of the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual.
But some critics have argued that Petraeus is coming into the fray too late to turn events around in Iraq: The right man at the wrong time. The field manual he co-wrote recommends at least 20 counterinsurgents per 1,000 residents. In Iraq that would equate to roughly 550,000 coalition troops about 400,000 more than are present.
Roskam said he was impressed with the Petraeus, although he could not divulge specifics from the discussion. He said that the general offered an enlightening briefing on the issues facing the different regions and neighborhood within Iraq.
"We're not out of the woods yet by a long shot on the surge, but what he described was tactical momentum," Roskam said during the teleconference.
Roskam's comments echoed the White House's support of Petraeus as the country awaits his report to Congress in September on the progress of the surge.
The Washington Post reported in July that President Bush has consistently invoked Petraeus' name in his defense of the war, citing the general's name at least 150 times this year in speeches, news conferences and interviews.
"There's much right now that's hinging on the success of the surge and what ultimately comes to the fruition," Roskam said during Saturday's teleconference. "Particular when Gen. Petraeus comes and reports to the country and the Congress this fall."
One caller, Eric Krull from Carol Stream, said he was concerned about conflicting reports about the success of the surge and what reception Petraeus' report will receive in September.
"My question is this: Do you think you and your colleagues in Congress overall will support Gen. Petraeus' final report once he delivers it?" Krull asked.
Roskam responded that he could not be sure how Congress will react but that Petraeus commanded the respect of the six representatives in the bipartisan convoy.
"This man is a very clear, thoughtful, good leader who understands what's going on, has a great deal of experience and I think commands a great deal of respect on both sides of the aisle," Roskam said. "As your congressman I'm going to be listening to him very carefully."