WASHINGTON — Iraq’s January elections have opened an opportunity for democratic change in the country, but poverty and the insurgency still haunt the U.S. mission, Sen. Ken Salazar said Tuesday after a visit to Baghdad.
Salazar left for the Middle East on Friday on a trip with four other Senate Democrats and two Republicans. The group has visited Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Kuwait and Iraq. They spent Tuesday night in Tblisi, Georgia, and will return home Friday.
“Our troops are upbeat, optimistic. They feel like they’re working in an important mission,” Salazar said in a telephone conference call from Tblisi.
Iraq faces three main challenges, Salazar said: security, poverty and solidifying its new government.
The senators visited a U.S.-run training camp for Iraqi security forces. Democrats have harshly questioned Bush administration officials over the pace of training for the Iraqi army and police.
“They have a significant way to go in terms of training the Iraqi security forces,” Salazar said, noting that the Army says 140,000 Iraqi troops and police have been trained. “But the real number of how many of those people are actually ready to provide security is still somewhat up in the air.”
Salazar noted the contrast between the everyday life of Iraqis and life inside one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces, where the senators met U.S. Gen. William Casey, the top officer in Iraq.
“As we flew into Baghdad, you could see that most of the homes are Third World homes, without drainage and many of the conveniences we know in the West ... and yet the palace was the epitome of opulence, from the marble on the walls to the chandeliers. It is a palace in every sense of the word,” Salazar said.
The delegation met with political leaders from Iraq’s three major ethnic and religious groups: Sunni Arabs, Shia Arabs and Kurds. Salazar was impressed with the role women are playing in the new government, noting that women hold six spots in the Cabinet and one-third of the seats in the parliament.
“The people who are now poised to be the Iraqi nation have a sense of hope that they can put this back together and that they can create a democracy in Iraq,” Salazar said.