By Joey Lomicky
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire
WASHINGTON - Though they congregated in a small, cramp-ed room of the Cannon House Office Building, the issue at hand was far bigger.
For more than three hours Thursday, 30 members of Congress participated in an informal hearing, called by Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., to support a military exit from Iraq. Frustrated that she could not get Republicans to schedule such a discussion before either the Armed Services or International Relations committees, she said she organized her own discussion to “break the silence on Capitol Hill.”
“So we’ve taken matters into our own hands,” she said. “There’s been very little appetite among the congressional leadership for open discussion about how we might end the war. … The administration’s rationale for war turned out be based on dubious intelligence at best and outright lies at worst.”
Democratic members of Congress drifted in and out, and one Republican put in an appearance as six witnesses, including a former senator, a retired general and a former U.S. diplomat in Iraq, discussed how the country should bring troops home.
“To have victory, you must have an end strategy, maybe not in full detail, but one nonetheless,” said Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., who has been criticized by other Republicans for his stance on Iraq.
Antonia Chayes, a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law in Medford, Mass., said American forces in Iraq are responsible for suppressing the counter-insurgency, fighting a war and peacekeeping some-thing she called an “impossible task.”
“We need to give up the war fighting role,” she said. “We can’t save Iraq by burning it to the ground.”
Former Sen. Max Cleland, a Georgia Democrat who served from 1997 to 2003, described the Iraq war’s disturbing similarities to Vietnam.
“I feel like I’m living in a time warp,” he said. “We have seen a president of the United States declare a threat to our nation and attack a country which did not attack us.”
Cleland, who lost most of both legs and part of his right arm in a grenade explosion in Vietnam in 1968, explained that the best support for troops is to get them home as soon as possible.
“I’m seeing this movie all over again. I can’t stand by silently while thousands of American soldiers risk their lives again for a no-win, no-end, war,” he said.
Cleland also voiced his concern about what he called the administration’s disregard for terrorists responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida.
“Those who attacked us, we let go free,” he said. “They are still out there and using the war in Iraq as a training ground for global terror.”
Although everyone agreed that an exit strategy from Iraq is essential, there were differing opinions on how such an exit should be handled.
“I believe the Iraqi people still want the U.S. to play a role, but most want to see an end to the occupation,” said Iraqi-American Anas Shallal, a peace activist and Sunni Muslim.
As the Oct.15 vote on the Iraqi constitution draws near, Shallal said many Sunnis will vote against it, even though it will likely pass.
“When Iraqis are asked what the most important issue of concern is to them, the matter of writing an acceptable constitution comes dead last,” he said. “At the top of the list is electricity, adequate housing, jobs, inflation and security something they don’t have.”
David Mack, vice president of the Middle East Institute and a former U.S. diplomat in Iraq, predicted, “The constitution will pass by a very narrow margin, and as a result, there will be a permanently embittered Sunni minority. … We’re dealing with Iraqis with great resentment.”
Even some of those who support an exit from Iraq said they are torn over whether a timeline and exit date should be announced.
Retired Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Hoar, who said he believes the Iraq “adventure” was the wrong war at the wrong time, said he thinks it’s dangerous to have a date certain.
“They’ll outlast us,” he proclaimed. “Instead, we should withdraw forces from geographic points and base it on a series of milestones, until we’ve left entirely.”
Shallal and others called for an exact date.
“Let’s call for April 9, 2006, Iraq’s true independence day,” he suggested, citing the end of the third year of U.S. occupation.
In an interview after the hearing, Woolsey expressed her appreciation for the turnout and support.
“I think it was extremely important to bring the discussion out in the open,” she said. “We need to plan our withdrawal.”