Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton, is talking with reporters this moment via conference call from Germany, where he recently arrived after a trip to Iraq.
McNerney led a six-member bipartisan freshmen delegation over the weekend to Iraq to visit with Iraqi leaders and American troops.
As soon as the call concludes, I’ll report on what McNerney found on the ground in Iraq both in this blog and on our on-line and print newspages.
Elected just nine months ago, McNerney remains committed to a timeline for U.S. withdrawal of its troops from Iraq but expressed a willingness to be more flexible after spending the weekend visiting American troops and Iraqi leaders in Baghdad and Ramadi.
“If anything, I’m more willing to work to find a way forward,” McNerney told reporters during a 45-minute teleconference from Ramstein Air Base in Germany. “I think we can find a way forward that would be bipartisan.”
McNerney and his colleagues arrived in Baghdad Saturday night, where they stepped off a C-130 airplane into the stifling, 120-degree desert heat.
They had dinner Saturday with Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, whose mission, McNerney said, was to persuade lawmakers to give him time to do his job in Iraq.
“I was impressed with Petraeus’ confidence,” McNerney said. “… But he’s aware of the pressure in Congress that we need to end this thing. He had a lot of data to show the progress. He’s concerned about being given enough time to finish the job but he’s aware that we need to come to a resolution.”
On Sunday, the legislators flew via Blackhawk helicopter to Ramadi, a town 70 miles outside of Baghdad where U.S. troops have successfully ousted terrorist forces. The flight was uneventful, except for a couple of flares that briefly gave McNerney the sensation of being under fire.
Once in Ramadi, McNerney and the others walked with military escorts in an open-air market.
The troops have “made quite a bit of progress here, (Ramadi) ” McNerney said. “Of course, I’m sure (the military) cherry-picked the best places for us to see.”
McNeney also had dinner with six soldiers from California and met with Iraq Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, an Iraqi Kurd.
The congressman described Salih as a “polished” politician who “said the right words. He knows we are are concerned about (the Iraqi leaders’) relationships with he different sects and the violence.” McNerney says he delivered a clear message to the Iraqi leaders: The U.S. cannot remain in Iraq forever and its leaders must step forward.
McNerney isn’t persuaded, however, that Iraq is ready to protect itself against a terrorist take-over in the absence of U.S. troops.
Iraqi leaders “sounded bravado and when you ask, they say ‘You can leave today, if you want to,’ ” McNerney said. “I didn’t get to talk to any Iraqi troops but I’m not as optimistic as I would like.”
He described the California soldiers as “being in good spirits … but they want the conflict over and they were ready to come home.” The soldiers used their time with the congressman to lobby for funding of better equipment such as light-weight body armor. One soldier from San Diego said he weighed 130 pounds without armor and 230 pounds with it.
The soldiers also talked with McNerney about California windmills; the congressman is a wind turbine expert who worked as a wind energy consultant prior to winning his seat in November. And he and a Sonoma soldier talked a little bit about wine.
The delegation flew late Sunday night to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where the delegation visited wounded troops including a man who suffered a bullet injury through his jaw and another who who faced reconstruction of his leg.
The other members of the bipartisan delegation included Democratic congress members Tim Mahoney of Florida and Keith Ellison of Minnesota; and Republicans Mary Fallin from Oklahoma, Dean Heller from Nevada and Peter Peter Roskam from Illinois.
McNerney plans to write a short essay about his Iraq trip, which he said he will post on his House web site. He recently wrote a similar paper on his trip to Greenland as part of the House Science Committee.