Published on Wednesday, March 30, 2005 by the San Francisco Chronicle
Boxer Wants Deadline for Leaving Iraq
Senator Says Iraqis Can't Rely Forever on U.S. for Security
by John Wildermuth
Sen. Barbara Boxer, back from a visit to Iraq, called on President Bush Tuesday to set a deadline for pulling U.S. troops out of that country and letting the Iraqis handle their own defense.
"If we do not set a date, the signals are very mixed,'' Boxer said in San Francisco. "People will just sit back and let us defend them.''
While U.S. military leaders were both concerned about the growing danger of a lengthy stay in Iraq and confident that the newly trained Iraqi military forces can handle the country's security, Iraqi officials she talked to had their doubts about when their troops would be ready, the California Democrat said.
With the current open-ended commitment of U.S. troops, there's a danger the Iraqis will become too dependent on the U.S. presence, she said.
"We need to lay out a plan, a goal, an expectation,'' Boxer said. "We have to tell the Iraqis, 'You have to take the second step now.' ''
All U.S. troops could be gone from Iraq in one to two years, Boxer said, citing concerns she heard from military officers.
"That doesn't mean you don't start right away and immediately move toward that goal,'' she said. "Still, I don't know anyone who believes we can just get up and walk out.''
Boxer spent eight days in Iraq, Kuwait and a handful of other countries as part of a seven-member Senate delegation. She returned to the Bay Area Sunday.
It was a relief to be driving in a car that wasn't armored, she said.
The pervasive security that surrounded not only the Senate delegation, but also the entire U.S. zone, was the biggest shock for Boxer.
The senators flew from Kuwait to Iraq in an Air Force C-130 that took evasive maneuvers on takeoff and landing. In Iraq, they weren't allowed to drive from the airport. Instead, the senators wore helmets and flak jackets as they flew by military helicopter from the Baghdad airport into the U.S. zone, with door gunners on constant alert for an attack by insurgents.
Even on the ground at U.S. headquarters, the senators were surrounded by armed guards and traveled by armored car. Embassy employees and other Americans aren't even free to travel through the supposedly secure Green Zone, but spend most of their time inside the embassy compound, Boxer said.
When the senators went to visit the Iraqi Parliament building in a tightly guarded part of Baghdad, security officers were checking under staircases and in empty rooms as the delegation moved through. When Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, went to the bathroom, she was joined by a female guard, toting a machine gun, Boxer said.
"You can't imagine how dire the security situation is,'' she said. "You can read about it and hear about it, but you can't imagine what it's like until you're there.
"You realize we're very far away from establishing a secure country.''
Boxer contrasted the continuing chaos and political upheaval in Iraq with the efforts of people in Ukraine and Georgia, two other countries the Senate delegation visited, to work through the problems they've faced since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
"In Ukraine and Georgia, people want democracy and self-determination,'' she said. "You can't force people into that.''
The trip to Iraq didn't change any minds, Boxer admitted. The senators who, like Boxer, opposed U.S. intervention in the country, came back feeling the same way, while those who backed Bush's efforts, like Republicans Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Robert Bennett of Utah, continue to support the president.
With Republicans in control of Congress, it's not going to be easy to pressure the president for a new policy in Iraq, Boxer said.
"All you can do is try to build a case,'' she said. "But it has to be done.''
© 2005 San Francisco Chronicle