CONFERENCE CALL FROM IRAQ WITH HOUSE MINORITY LEADER REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH); REP. PETER HOEKSTRA (R-MI); AND REP. PETER KING (R-NY)
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OPERATOR: Welcome and thank you for standing by. At this time, I would like to inform all parties that you will be on a listen-only mode until the question and answer session of today's conference call.
I would now like to turn the meeting over to House Republican Leader John Boehner.
REP. BOEHNER: Well, good evening -- or good afternoon to all of you, and thanks for taking the time to call in.
I'm in the Middle East, and we're in Baghdad tonight. And with me is Congressman Pete Hoekstra, Congressman Peter King. We're here with a bipartisan delegation.
And you know, now that General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker have testified, I and the rest of our delegation were eager to get a firsthand look at what's going on here on the ground. We want to examine the security gains that our troops have made and the reduction in violence as a result. We want to look at the grass roots political progress at the local level, and we want to see how the Iraqi forces are working hand-in-glove with U.S. troops and how their training is coming along. And as importantly, we want to thank our troops for the service on behalf of our country. And that's kind of the big picture of what we hope to accomplish.
Let me turn it over to Congressman Peter King.
REP. KING: Thank you very much.
So far it's been, I believe, very informative. We've met with General Odierno. We've met with -- (audio break) -- multinational force. We've met with the diplomatic people, and we've spoken to troops on the ground.
Now, obviously we would be doing a lot more tomorrow, but so far I would say there's a strong consensus, if not unanimous consensus, that General Petraeus's testimony was on target, and -- but again, we're doing a lot a over the next several days, and we'll have more to report then, but so far it's been a very, very productive and worthwhile trip.
REP. BOEHNER: Pete Hoekstra.
REP. HOEKSTRA: Yeah, thank you. Thanks, Mr. Leader.
I think my colleagues have covered it pretty well. The objective here is to balance off the testimony we got from General Petraeus, Ambassador Crocker, on Monday, with what we see here on the ground truth, but also to remember that this is a larger struggle that we are involved in. So we'll also be going to other places in the Middle East to take a look at the continued threat from radical jihadists, not only here in Iraq but also in Pakistan, Afghanistan and these types of things, so that we will have -- we will be able to put Iraq into the larger context of this threat we face from radical Jihadists. Well, thanks, John.
REP. BOEHNER: All right. With that, fire away.
Don't be afraid to ask any questions.
OPERATOR: Thank you, we will now begin the question and answer session. If you would like to ask a question, please press star-1. Please unmute your phone and record your name clearly when prompted. Your name is required to introduce your question. To withdraw your request, press star-2. Again, if you'd like to ask a question, please press star-1.
One moment, please, for the first question.
Our first question comes from Deb Price. Your line is open.
Q Yeah, hi. This is a question for Pete Hoekstra. Pete, could you talk a little bit about what you've done so far and what you're going to be doing in Iraq, and then would you elaborate, please, on how you feel going to Afghanistan and Pakistan will help you in understanding the larger issue we're talking about, of the larger problem of terrorism?
REP. HOEKSTRA: Okay, thanks Deb. We got into Baghdad late, I guess Wednesday afternoon. We had an opportunity directly then to go to meet with General Odierno. This was a guy -- my first trip to Baghdad four years ago, or to Iraq, I met with both General Odierno and Petraeus, and in my trip report back then I said these were two of the most impressive guys that I saw while I was in Iraq.
So we were able to, you know, get in depth with General Odierno on some of the details that General Petraeus laid out earlier in the week, the success that we are having in various parts of the country through the surge process, also some of the threats that we continue to face and some of the obstacles that are still out there.
We then also had the opportunity to meet -- to have dinner with the charge, you know, the number-two person to Ambassador Crocker; to also meet with the British general who is supporting General Petraeus and other U.S. military and diplomatic personnel, to get, you know, the complete package.
And what we're able to do here when we're in Iraq is to have a smaller group of members with a broader group of government officials, U.S. and military officials and Brits, to talk about the testimony that we got on Monday.
Tomorrow what we're going to be able to do is we're going to be able to -- and I haven't been able to do this the last couple of years that I've been in -- that I've come to Iraq, but tomorrow we're actually going to be able to go out and visit some front-line stations, some joint security stations, forward-operating stations so that we can see exactly how the stations and how these things work and the cooperation between U.S. and Iraqi forces, and we'll be able to have our soldiers tell us specifically how this is working and how this is different.
And, you know, for some of the colleagues that I talked to in August who were out here, I mean, they went to Fallujah, they went to Ramallah -- to Ramadi to see and so they could walk the streets of these cities where six months, eight months ago you wouldn't have dared come near those cities. And so, you know, we're hoping to be able to see that transformation in person.
Going to Pakistan and Afghanistan, you know, we're getting different reporting lines on intelligence that I can't really get into any detail on today. They're preliminary. But it continues to point out and highlight the importance that, you know, al Qaeda picks its battles strategically; it's thinking about where it goes in Iraq; it's thinking about where else it strikes. Obviously, we saw that last week with the threat lines in Germany, the threat lines in Denmark, but we also need to keep our fingers on the pulse of what al Qaeda is thinking about doing in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. You know, that's where they've been in the past; that's where they continue to have a presence.
And so if you're talking about the threat from radical jihadism, you can't just go to Iraq. You've got to to go Iraq. You got to go to Iraq, you got to go to other places where al Qaeda has been interested and has attacked before and where we think they may -- it's clearly part of their plans into the future.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Chad Pergrum (ph). You may ask your question.
Q This question's for Mr. Boehner. Mr. Boehner, there has been some -- an ad that's been running here in the Washington, D.C., area and across the country with sort of a nuanced pointing to tying Iraq to the 9/11 attacks, and the administration has got some criticism about some nuanced positions they've taken in that regard.
Is that fair for this ad to be running in this way? And I'm asking, I guess, to get a response from the Republicans, on this side, who obviously hit the left so hard after the moveon.org ad that hit earlier this week, and thought that that was unfair as well.
REP. BOEHNER: Well, if you look at where 9/11 came from, it clearly came from al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden. And if you look at our number one enemy in Iraq today, it is not an insurgency here; it's not sectarian violence. It's al Qaeda. And as Pete Hoekstra just pointed out, al Qaeda is the major threat that we face -- radical jihadism. It's not just al Qaeda; it's al Qaeda and related groups. And so I have not seen the ad that you're referring to. But clearly with what we're facing in Iraq and have been over the last three years, it's clearly tied to the same groups that caused 9/11 to occur.
OPERATOR: The next question comes from Sabrina Eaton.
Your line is open.
Q Hi, this is a question for Congressman Boehner.
Within the past few days, Congressman Kucinich from Ohio went to Syria on his -- the dime of his presidential campaign. And he gave an interview with Syrian TV in which he was highly critical of the U.S. operations in Iraq. Now some people are calling him traitor, a traitor for this. Do you have any thoughts on his visit to Syria and the propriety of members of Congress doing that and, you know, how appropriate it is to be commenting critically on U.S. actions in Iraq on Arabic TV?
REP. BOEHNER: Well, we're Americans. We're Americans; we're protected under a Bill of Rights. And one of those protections is the right to free speech. I think that success in Iraq is absolutely critical for our national interest and absolutely critical for our national security, both in the short term and frankly for the future of my kids and their kids. And I believe strongly that what we're doing here in Iraq, taking on al Qaeda, taking on the Iranians, will in fact serve America's best national interest and help provide the kind of national security that I think Americans want today and for tomorrow.
Q So you believe that what Congressman Kucinich is saying is free speech protected under the Bill of Rights?
REP. BOEHNER: It's protected. I may disagree with it, but I think he has the right to do what he wants to do.
Q Thank you.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Christian Borg (sp). You may ask your question.
Q This is directed at Mr. Boehner, but also for the group at large. I'm wondering what you have seen so far, what you have been told; if you can address in terms of specifics how it backs up General Petraeus' and Ambassador Crocker's comments, as well as if you've seen anything that has been or have been told anything that is a cause of concern, specifically related to the larger political picture in the country, which seems to be the area in which things are lacking decidedly.
REP. BOEHNER: Well, I think in terms of specifics that we've heard in the short time that we've been here is that we've seen in terms of political change on the ground in Al Anbar province is beginning to spread to other provinces closer to Baghdad. I think that that will help provide the kind of foundation for the greater political reconciliation on the national level.
Now, there's been a lot of frustration with Prime Minister Maliki and our government, but you know, if you go back several months ago, there was a real threat that Prime Minister Maliki was going to face a no-confidence vote and lose. That vote never occurred. And while people may be frustrated, both in Washington and, frankly, here in Iraq, I think all of the groups began to realize that there was no better option and that it's going to take time for these groups to come to the kind of reconciliation that we're all hoping that they will.
But I think what we've seen -- what we've seeing on the ground here and what we expect to see tomorrow on the ground is the kind of real political difference from the ground-up that will have lasting consequences.
Q And the other two gentlemen?
REP. HOEKSTRA: I was going to say -- this is Pete Hoekstra. I think the other thing that -- two things that we got to get a better handle on is, you know, when we put the benchmarks in place and were thinking about those, we talked about military success and we talked about military progress at the Baghdad level. One of the pleasant surprises that had happened is something that we didn't necessarily anticipate and we didn't put any benchmarks on, and that is the level of local reconciliation that's taking place.
This is what happened in Anbar province, this is happening with -- this is what appears to beginning to happen in Basra, and local groups are apparently rejecting al Qaeda, they are working the reconciliation issue at the local level, and they're agreeing to participate with the coalition to move forward. And so rather than what maybe was originally was expected was that the political reconciliation would start in Baghdad and move down, it appears that there's some at the national level -- it's not going as fast as what we want, but it's maybe being more than compensated for by the reconciliation at the local level and moving up, and that's something, I think, we need to take a closer look at.
The second thing that is encouraging that we haven't -- I haven't been able to (delve ?) deeper yet, but with some of the testimony that Ambassador Crocker brought up, which is other countries in the region finally stepping up and taking a bigger role in the long-term success of Iraq, and that's -- like the Saudis talking about establishing an embassy, the Kuwaitis developing stronger economic ties, the Jordanians getting to be more involved -- the more that we can get these other countries (vested ?) in Iraq's long-term solution -- this is something that we've been pushing and we've been requesting from Iraq's neighbors -- it appears that some steps finally are -- or some more positive steps are finally starting to happen in that area.
REP. KING: Yeah, this is Pete King. Let me just follow up on what Pete Hoekstra said. I was -- I've been pleasantly surprised -- and again, I'm not certain if it's -- how accurate it is -- but there seemed to be a general consensus among the diplomatic people that the Maliki government is actually more receptive or more cognizant of what it has to do, and that has been the general impression back in the United States.
Now, I know Ambassador Crocker testified to that in Washington, and from talking to people, both at the charge level (on) down, they all seem to be saying that, yes, Maliki has gotten the message and he realizes -- (audio break) -- have to be done. Now, it'll be a question, I guess, of -- at what level it's going to be done, but it appears that he is much more responsive than was the general feeling in Washington.
Also, as Pete Hoekstra said, that -- there seems to be a lot of local cooperation in provincial councils with Shi'ites and Sunnis working together, not because they love each other, but they realize that their future success depends upon it. So we may well see that, as Pete said, in these benchmarks we're setting.
Looks like the benchmarks barely mentioned -- the benchmark report barely -- the GAO report barely mentions the progress in Al Anbar province.
It also is failing to note the considerable progress -- political progress that's being made at the local levels throughout the country, which may well work its way up and, you know, beneath the radar screen for a while but actually having a very significant effect.
Q Are you hearing these things from any local sources or only through the U.S. diplomatic corps?
REP. KING: Well, today we just met with the diplomatic people. And -- but again it was various levels of the diplomatic corps. And they were -- all seemed to have the same opinion. Also, the military people surprisingly -- not surprisingly but again, surprising in the context of what we've been hearing in Washington, the military people also seemed to believe that they were making much more progress with the Maliki government than we had up till now.
REP. HOEKSTRA: Yeah, just to put that in a little bit of context, I was in the region last November, and it was not a State Department trip. It was put together by some other folks who said, we are going to take you to the region; we're going to have you meet with some folks who you typically wouldn't meet with on a State Department- sponsored trip. So I came into the region. These individuals brought a whole group of other folks in to meet with me that I had not met with before, or they represented groups that I had not met with before.
One of the groups that they brought in were Sunni tribal leaders who, back in November, indicated that they were looking for ways to integrate and to make contact with U.S. government officials and military officials, because they were ready to flip, that they were ready to go from being supportive or allied with al Qaeda to being ready to ally with the coalition. And they said, you know, we just need the opening. And they had felt that for a long time, the coalition forces weren't open to them. But it's obvious over what's happened over the last six to eight months that the coalition forces opened their doors and the Sunni leaders came in through it. And a relationship that had been very, very difficult for the first two, three years that we were in Iraq has borne a lot of fruit.
So I did hear this in 2006 from Sunni tribal leaders who said, we want to partner with the coalition; we think we can help. And they clearly have.
Q Thank you, gentlemen.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from -- (name inaudible).
Your line is open.
Q Yeah, I listened to all three of you. And had I not, I guess, paid close attention to the news over the past several weeks, I would have believed that we're just a short distance away from achieving victory in Iraq. I mean, it's -- if you go back over the history of what we've heard from administration officials to others, it seems like the good things have always just been around the corner. And why should we have confidence in what we're hearing right now and the assessment of reconciliation and the assessment of security and the assessment of the stability of the government, when we've been down this road so many times in the past?
REP. BOEHNER: Well, I think there have been -- this is Boehner -- I think there have been promises in the past, but clearly what's happened over the last three months is real success. I mean, there's no if's, and's or but's about it. Petraeus and Crocker pointed it out during their testimony earlier today. We met with General Odierno, who went through a very detailed report of the kind of political success that's -- and political reconciliation not only that's happening in Al Anbar province, but in other areas. And we expect to go into one of these other areas tomorrow. But this is real success.
Now, do we have a long way to go? Absolutely. Is this going to be easy? I don't think so. But at the end of the day, it's success that I think is critical for the United States both in the short term and the long term.
OPERATOR: The next question comes from Brian Rio (sp).
Q Leader Boehner, given that there's likely to be a large U.S. presence in Iraq a year from now, what impact do you expect the Iraq issue to have on the congressional elections in 2008?
REP. BOEHNER: Well, I think that we're going to see less numbers of troops, I think, in Iraq a year from now. What that number's likely to be at the end of the day before the elections, I don't think anyone -- no one could possibly know. But I do think that if we're continuing the kind of success that we've seen over the next year, I think it actually will -- (inaudible) -- to the benefit of Republicans who've stood on principle, who've made it clear that success is critical for our national security. And frankly, I have always felt good about it, I continue to feel good about it.
OPERATOR: The next question comes from Bill Care (sp).
Q Good evening, gentlemen, your time. Can you tell me, are you each committed, then, at this point to funding the surge through July -- mid-July of 2008?
And is it your expectation that Congress will support the deployment of 130,000 troops from July onward?
REP. BOEHNER: Well, I think we're going to -- I'm committed to following the plan as outlined by General Petraeus. I think it's reasonable, I think it's responsible, and I think it's achievable. And you know, I'm hopeful that we'll be able to see more success and have more of our troops come home as soon as possible.
REP. KING: I think basically that we've had some -- progress continues to be made, and I think it would be irresponsible for us to pull away or to pull the plug, and the consequences that would have on Iraq, on the Middle East and on the United States and the war against terrorism, to me, you know, would be extraordinary. And as long as real progress is being made -- and that's certainly all the indications from General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker and that we've -- (inaudible) -- we've been hearing so far, all indications that the progress is being made -- then I believe you owe it to the troops, we owe it to the country to continue our commitment, but again, ensuring that progress continues to be made.
REP. HOEKSTRA: Yeah, this is Congressman Hoekstra. I think when you look at the plan that General Petraeus has laid out, step number one, a commitment that you withdraw 40,000 troops, or almost 25 percent of our troops, over the next eight to nine months; step number two is that as that process is ongoing, the number of U.S. troops that are in the lead is going to significantly decrease. American troops are going to be moving into support -- a support role, not a lead role, in the security and stability. And in then the third step that he (set/said ?), his February-March time frame, he will give us the next update. And if you take a look at the chart that he's outlined in his testimony, he's expecting that in a March time frame he'll be able to announce additional troop withdrawals based on the strategy that he has in place. But at this point in time, he just didn't feel comfortable identifying exactly what that number would be.
So, you know, believing that it's important to be successful in Iraq, I think General Petraeus and the strategy that he has outlined is the best of the options that are out there. I'm not sure that other than, you know, pulling all of the troops out rather precipitously -- whether there is another strategy that has been as well thought out, with clear objectives and tactics outlined, other than the one that he has laid out.
OPERATOR: The next question is from Brian Vernon (sp).
Q Yes. Thank you very much, congressmen, for doing this conference call. At the risk of treading on the rule that politics ends at the water's edge, I just wanted to see if I could get any impressions you might have on the Democratic side of the debate going on and the kind of scrambling around to craft some new strategy to respond to the Petraeus/White House recommendations.
REP. BOEHNER: I think that our Democratic colleagues have invested all of their political capital all year in failure in Iraq, and now that we're having success in Iraq and hopefully will continue to have success, I'm not sure that they have -- I'm not sure they have anyplace to go. I'm not sure they know where they're going. You know, clearly, if they try to move somewhere toward the president, I think the left and -- the anti-war left will not let them go there. So I'm not sure where they go.
All I know is that I think there's a majority of the members in the House and Senate who believe that success is vital to America, and I think at the end of the day will support the recommendations of General Petraeus.
REP. KING: This is Pete King. Obviously, honest people can have honest differences about what our policy should be in Iraq, but to me the Democratic Party's credibility was dramatically damaged this week when they refused to denounce and disown the ad by MoveOn.org.
That, to me, just demonstrates that their policy is driven by extreme left-wing base. MoveOn.org is not some fringe organization. It's a group that's become the base of the Democratic Party. All the presidential candidates go to his convention. They -- you know, they work with us, and they had a morale obligation, obligation to their country to denounce that ad and to denounce MoveOn.org. The fact that they didn't, that they were scared to do it, just indicates to me that their policy is driven by fear of groups like MoveOn.org To me, they lose all intellectual credibility.
STAFF: Operator, we have time for two more questions.
OPERATOR: Thank you. The next comes from -- (first name off mike) -- Dennis.
Q Yeah, I'm wondering if you could talk about a lot of the saber-rattling that's been going on about Iran and what you see going forward there? There's been talk that there could be a war next year, that we could attack them over their nuclear program, et cetera. And also wondering to what extent you're hearing from fellow Republicans, such as Jim Walsh, who aren't comfortable with going forward the way General Petraeus says -- has said he wants faster draw downs and timetables.
REP. HOEKSTRA: This is Congressman Hoekstra.
On the Iran issue, clearly we need to be focused on Iran. We need to be focused on Iran because they continue their efforts to de- stabilize the progress that we're making here in Iraq. That's one of the questions that is going to be out there over the next six to 12 months -- how do we effectively deal with their de-stabilizing efforts here in Iraq -- and hopefully, we can reach a consensus or a conclusion as to how to deal with that most effectively.
We also need to work with other countries in the region along with our European allies and the Russians to make sure that we do not get to a point where we have an Iran that is a nuclear Iran. That is bad for the region. That's bad for the world. So a lot of negotiations, a lot of strategic development needs to take place in that area, and I -- you know, I personally do not see us in a war with Iran in the next 12 months. You know, that -- that's not a direction that I see us going, but I really do believe that this is an issue that the United States needs to lead on, that we will lead on in developing and putting the diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran to get them to behave responsibly in the region.
STAFF: Last question, Operator.
OPERATOR: Our final question comes from Richard Calin (sp). Your line is open.
Q Hi. Thanks. You've all talked about measure of success and progress, I'm wondering why that contrasts so much with -- there was a teleconference yesterday in which some Iraqi legislators were piped in to Washington, and here's just a taste of what they had to say. One national assembly member said: The situation is becoming worse and worse every day in Iraq. Another said he was listening to Petraeus yesterday -- I thought he was talking about another country.
You've now -- do I have it right, you've been in Baghdad a few hours now and your assessment is based on a briefing with an embassy official and the general?
REP. BOEHNER: Richard, this is Boehner. No, we -- at this point we've met with at least a dozen of our military and diplomatic officials here in Baghdad. Tomorrow we expect to be out in Iraq and to see for ourselves what kind of progress has been made. But in listening to those that we've met with thus far, there's clear progress being made on the ground.
Q I know it's tough to -- I mean, having not been in this teleconference yesterday, it's probably tough for you, but I mean, it's just so striking the difference in their perceptions. One is Saleh al-Mutlak from the Iran -- the Iraqi National Dialogue front, and the other was a guy from the Islamic Virtue Party. Do you have any idea why it's night and day difference in perceptions?
REP. KING: Well, certainly we see it in our own country. You know, different political people see things differently. But again, I think we've made it clear this is based on our first day in Iraq meeting with a number of people, a number of whom we've met with before and have had contacts with before and respect their judgment. But we're also going to be out and around various places in Iraq tomorrow. We also make it a point -- I know I do, and I know John and Pete do, too, is we also talk to the NCOs, the sergeants, the specialists, the PFCs, the guys that are really on the ground. And I spoke to any number of them just in the last hour, and they're basically saying the same thing.
Is that definite? No, absolutely not. But you combine that with General Petraeus's testimony, with Ambassador Crocker's testimony. And so what we've seen and heard so far confirms -- seems to confirm what General Petraeus said. But that's why we're also going to be meeting with as many people as we possibly can tomorrow.
REP. BOEHNER: I want to thank all of you for --
REP. HOEKSTRA: John, can I just say something on that?
REP. BOEHNER: Yeah.
REP. HOEKSTRA: You know, this is not about one briefing. You know, this is my ninth trip to Iraq in the last -- in the last four, four and half years. It is about constantly meeting with troops who are returning and cycling through. It's about reading the GAO report. It is about reading the Jim Jones report. It is about listening to General Petraeus and then coming out here. So it's not about one briefing or whatever, you know, of limited number of hours in Baghdad. For all of this is continuing research and study on this issue.
And if anything, the -- from, you know, my experience over the last four-and-a-half years from lots of different sources -- the telephone or the conference call that you're describing yesterday, these guys may legitimately feel that way, but I can tell you that they are the outliers. That is not -- you know, none of the reports that have come out recently, none of the data that is out there would support the kind of positions that these folks were stating on the conference call.
REP. KING: This is Pete King.
If I could just add on to that, obviously I've been to Iraq a number of times myself and as chairman and ranking member of the Homeland Security Committee, like Pete Hoekstra, would get various intelligence briefings, get access to a lot of materials. I speak to as many troops as I possibly can who are home from Iraq, certainly every constituent of mine I can who's been over there, I talk to, but also talking to the various leaders when they come back. So again it is an informed judgment. Doesn't guarantee it's right, but it's certainly based on more than just talking to a few people for a few hours.
REP. BOEHNER: I want to thank all of you for calling in. And I'll -- as we have more to report, we'll be back in touch. Thank you.