Newsday - For LI Reps, no Break on Iraq
MARTIN C. EVANS
As a newly released government report paints a gloomy picture of progress in Iraq, Long Island's local delegation said yesterday that the war will be topic No. 1 as Congress reconvenes from its August recess.
The Government Accountability Office analysis portrayed a troubling situation in Iraq, saying its government failed to meet key progress benchmarks, and that its inability to provide security or even clean water and electricity left it "dysfunctional."
The 92-page report, and another by Gen. David Petraeus due next week, could present a challenge for Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), Long Island's lone congressional Republican.
In May, King said he would reassess his war support based on September reports assessing Iraqi success in meeting progress benchmarks.
Yesterday, King said he is still supporting President George W. Bush's handling of the war because he believes the situation in Iraq is improving.
"To me, the surge is working," said King, who also said he will leave Tuesday for a weeklong fact-finding visit to Iraq and Afghanistan.
King's positive assessment came hours after GAO chief David Walker told the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee the Iraqi government had met only three of 18 progress benchmarks toward establishing stability.
Walker said although senior Shia, Sunni and Kurdish leaders had signed an accord to bring national reconciliation, "the polarization of Iraq's major sects and ethnic groups, and fighting among Shiite factions, further diminishes the stability of Iraq's governing coalition. ... "
"I think there's a significant question as to whether or not Iraqi security forces will be able to maintain the safety and security in these areas absent direct U.S. troop involvement," Walker said, referring to efforts to return to Iraqi control areas pacified by U.S. troops. "Because as we all know, most Iraqi security forces require significant support from the United States in the form of logistics, in the form of intelligence and other types of activities."
Next week, Petraeus is expected to give an appraisal of the U.S. troop surge that could be more comforting to war supporters. Petraeus is expected to say the additional 30,000 troops sent to Iraq last spring has given the Iraqi government needed breathing room while it tries to establish a stable democracy.
Long Island peace activists have mounted vigils and letter-writing campaigns in an effort to pressure all five area members of Congress to withdraw support for the war. Although the area's four Democrats voted against an Iraq war supplemental in the spring, they supported prior measures that have helped keep the war going.
"We're pushing the Democrats, too," said Margaret Melkonian, co-director for the Long Island Alliance for Peaceful Alternatives. "They have the power to cut the funds."
Meanwhile, Congress has less than a month remaining to craft a federal budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
"Our plate is very full," said Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton). "First off, we haven't passed any appropriations bills, and Sept. 30 is looming."
Bishop said he would like to see several pieces of spending legislation passed, including the College Cost Reduction Act, which would cut interest rates on student loans, and boost the size of Pell grants.
King said he favors passage of legislation that would extend to 15 years the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act, which provides a federal backstop against insurance losses due to terror attacks. The federal insurance plan, which opponents say should be left to the free market, expires this year.
King said the legislation is needed to encourage the redevelopment of the lower Manhattan site of the 9/11 terror attack.
But with the emotional issue of war in Iraq on the table, spending bills could take a back seat.
Asked what he thought would absorb the attention of Congress now that Labor Day is past, Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) had a one-word answer: "Iraq."
"I expect it to dominate September," Israel said, "and to be exceedingly controversial."