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Delegation of Senators hold live Press Conference in Iraq

Aired February 19, 2005 - 07:36   ET


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, (R) ARIZONA: ...South Carolina, and Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin.
We're each going to make a brief one-minute opening comment and then we will respond to questions if that's agreeable.

We're very pleased to have the opportunity to be back, particularly after the really incredible election that was just held here, which displayed the Iraqi people's commitment to choosing their own leaders and determining their own future. We know that there is a long way to go. We know that there is still very bad people out there that want to destroy the Iraqi peoples' attempts at obtaining freedom. We are also very pleased with the process that is going on.

We met with the prime minister, the deputy prime minister, the minister of finance, who have briefed us about their view of the process as it is proceeding. And they are also optimistic about the formation of a constitutional assembly and an ensuing elected government.

So we're pleased to be here and also, by the way, we are also equally pleased to have the opportunity to meet with and congratulate our brave young men and women who are serving here, in Iraq, under many times very difficult circumstances. We're very proud of them.

Senator Collins.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS, (R) MAINE: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

It is always a pleasure to go on a trip like this with Sen. John McCain, and I appreciate his inviting all of us to come to Iraq.

I was last here in the summer of 2003. I'm struck by the many changes that have occurred since then. I believe that Iraq is at a tipping point, as a result of the recent elections. I believe that the path that was chosen with those elections is one that will lead to freedom and democracy for the Iraqi people. But it has been stressed to us in all of our meetings today that this is indeed a critical time for the Iraqi people. And that they continue to require American support and the support of other coalition forces.

I, too, am so proud of the man and women of our armed forces, whom we met. We look forward to seeing more of them throughout our journey. They make us very proud as Americans. SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, (D) NEW YORK: Thank you very much for giving us this opportunity for publicly state both our appreciation and pride in American military forces that have been here and are here now. And also our support for the people of Iraq and their elections, which will lead to a new government. I think that the impression that I take away from just this short visit after talking with not only government officials but some of our military and civilian leaders here in Iraq, is cautious optimism.

Cautious, because there are so many challenges ahead; cautious, because there are neighbors of Iraq that are not necessarily enthusiastic about the success of the Iraqi people in creating and sustaining a multi-ethnic, multi-religious democracy.

But optimistic, because the results of the election are a strong rebuke to those who did not believe that the Iraqi people would take this opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to their own future. And our hope is, with the formation of a new government, that all groups within Iraq will be included and that the establishment of this new government will be firmly rooted in the hopes and aspirations of the Iraqi people. I think it is fair to say that not only the administration of our country but the Congress of the United States have committed ourselves to doing what we can to help achieve that objective.

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD, (D) WISCONSIN: I want to join everyone in the delegation in congratulating the Iraqi people on the successful election results and thank Senator McCain for including me in this congressional delegation. It is such an important time in the history of Iraq.

My particular focus is on a number of things. Are our troops getting what they need to be safe and to be able to do their job? Are American taxpayer dollars that are being spent here, being spent carefully? Is there an ability to monitor that, on the part of our government and our people here? So that we can make sure that the American people can have confidence in that?

And from a broader point of view, I am very interested in following up on the fact that our CIA director the other day said that Iraq has now become, instead of Afghanistan, the leading place of training of international terrorists. And what implications that has for Iraq and for our own safety and what we can do together with the officials here and in other parts of the world to make sure that what we're doing here, not only ensures that the people of Iraq have democracy but that this is consistent with the number one issue in America, which is making sure we deter the people that attacked us on September 11.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R) SOUTH CAROLINA: I'm Senator Graham from South Carolina. This is my third trip to Iraq and I'd like to echo what my colleagues have said, to those men and women who are serving over here and who have served, this election is a direct result of your efforts and sacrifice.

And not only just your efforts but coalition partners. There are other countries that have been involved in this effort and they've lost people. And we need to recognize them. And I see some heads nodding, from our American military folks out there.

But the thing that I'm most encouraged about is I think the American people saw the Iraq people do something that was very hard; go to a polling station and on the way you saw graffiti that says, if you vote, you die. So, what I would like to say is that the people who are helping over in Iraq, they deserve it. And whatever sacrifice lies ahead for our country, I hope we will continue to make that sacrifice because it is in our best interest that Iraq be free stable and democratic.

And the one thing that I've learned from this trip, is that we're a long way away from being able to leave. That if the Iraqi people want us to stay, we're going to be here for awhile, in large numbers; but it is worth it, we cannot leave too soon. This country faces many problems, many struggles, but they have convince me, and I hope they have convinced you, that their desire to be free, with help, will overcome the people who are trying to take them back into the darkness.

MCCAIN: Questions? Sir.


FEINGOLD: I think there is a very good faith effort being made to try to spend the dollars wisely. There are challenges in terms of trying to review projects that are in areas that are not easy to be secure. And so this is something that I'm looking forward to the report that we get from the inspector general, next. The first report was a frankly disturbing report that had to do with some issues concerning Iraqi dollars and that needs to be fixed up.

But the next report will be about American dollars and I've urged people here, and they're already on the job, to try to figure out a way to make sure that we have some accountability with regard to this spending. And I look forward to the results of those reports.

MCCAIN: Ma'am.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (speaking in Arabic, translator inaudible): ... For the liberation of Iraq, but the election lead to the election of a religious group that are known have loyalty to Iraq.

MCCAIN: Well, we have no indication that the people who are elected have an allegiance to anything other than the Iraqi people and the formation of a free and democratic government. The fact that they may be of the same religious faith does not necessarily mean that they are in any way inclined to cede Iraqi sovereignty to Iran or any other nation.

CLINTON: Well, obviously, we expressed some concern about that. And the future will demonstrate whether that concern is well founded or not. At this point, I share Senator McCain's opinion that it appears there is a good faith effort underway to form a government that is reflective of the aspirations of the Iraqi people. And I think some of the checks and balances that were written into the law, will help to create the best possible circumstances for that to occur. And it is something that we will continue to watch and hope that it does not cause any problem, that there is no divided loyalty whatsoever, within the Iraqi government.

COLLINS: Each of the Iraqi leaders with whom we met stress the need for a coalition government that reached out to all parties, to all ethnic groups. I think that is very impressive. We have just come through an Iraqi election where the Sunnis population's participation was very low, which was regrettable. And yet, the leaders with whom we've talked with all talked about their efforts to reach out to the Sunnis as they put together a new government.

I think that demonstrates an understanding on the part of these Iraqi leaders that the government must have Kurdish and Sunni representation as well as Shiite.


QUESTION: Dexter Filkins with "The New York Times".

I was just wondering if you could walk us through what you did when you were here and just let us know if you were able to get outside the Green Zone at all?

MCCAIN: The second answer is, no. We would obviously like to -- tomorrow, we are going -- excuse me, I'm not allowed to reveal our itinerary, I guess. But we will be going to several other places throughout the country. And today we spent most of our time with the Iraqi leaders and although we also had a long briefing with General Petraeus (ph), but tomorrow we will be spending most of our time with the American military in various places, at least three outside of the Green Zone.

You're first question was?

QUESTION: Just who you met when you were here, today, then?

MCCAIN: Today, we met with General Petraeus (ph), and then, we met with the prime minister, the deputy prime minister, and the finance minister. And also had a briefing at the embassy where the food was far superior to that of the Senate dining room.


QUESTION: Tomash Ashzlov (ph), CNN.

Senator Collins, you mentioned that you were here in 2003, in the summer, and you have seen a lot of progress. You know, I was here in 2003, in the summer also. At that time I was able to travel around the country. I see many of American soldiers having lunches in the restaurants, you know, this is suicidal today. Big chunks of the country, especially Baghdad, are still without electricity. There is a terrible security situation, terrible unemployment. How do you define success or progress? What did you see? COLLINS: First, let me say, that I didn't mean to imply that all of what I have seen represented progress. When I was here that summer, it was much easier for us to move around. We visited several cities around Baghdad. We were able to move more freely through Baghdad. And one impression I have is how much more fortified Baghdad is than it was during that summer.

But on the other hand, at that point is was clearly the coalition forces who were making every decision and who were running the country. That clearly is not the case today. We've seen a true transition of power. We've seen the Iraqi people begin to control their own destiny, to chart their own future, and to make the basic governing decisions.

One of the leaders with whom we met today said that back when the CPA was in charge that the Iraqi people could blame the Americans for everything. If the electricity went off, if the Americans' fault; he said, now we're making the decisions and shouldering the blame, as well as the credit.

Although, it is disappointing to see that the violence that has ensued since my last visit has resulted in an Iraq where it is more difficult to move around, there is no doubt in my mind that the long- term future of the Iraqi people is far brighter and that the transition to power -- in the hands of the Iraqi people has, and is, occurring.

MCCAIN: We believe, hope and pray, that the dynamic has changed from Iraqi insurgents versus the U.S. and our troops, to Iraqi insurgents versus the Iraqi government. Under the second scenario, if it applies, then I think we have an opportunity to succeed. And I want to emphasize again, there are none of us who have visited here who wish to understate or under appreciate the enormity of the task that lies ahead of us.

Ma'am, yes. We'll go to you, too. Go ahead.

QUESTION: This is Fanas Fausti (ph) with "The Wall Street Journal".

Senator Clinton, can you elaborate on some of your concerns about neighboring countries and what specifically concerns you? And which countries, please? Thanks.

CLINTON: Well, I think that the concerns center on Iran and Syria. Iran, because of the size and influence of Iran in this region; because of some of the policies that Iran has followed; and, of course, because of some of the linkages that go back many, many years when Iran was not only fighting a war against Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, but was helping to support opposition to Saddam Hussein.

With respect to Syria, it is an ongoing concern heightened by the assassination of Mr. Hariri (ph), in Beirut, that Syria has a agenda that has not only resulted in its failure to control borders, perhaps providing refuge to insurgents or leaders, Ba'athist leaders who have sought sanctuary there, but it tends to take a more aggressive posture in the region.

So, I think that may not be the only set of concerns, but those are the two at the top of the list.


QUESTION: Senator Graham, two questions. One is you said that you feel that the troops are going to have to be here for a while, do you feel like that is five years, 10 years, if you can give a timetable.

And the second question is one for back at the States: Since the president has left the door open for raising the cap on Social Security payroll taxes...

(LAUGHTER) it a good idea for Republicans to raise taxes to help solve the Social Security problem?

GRAHAM: I thought surely 5,000 miles away you would avoid that question.

MCCAIN: Aren't you glad we had one more question?

GRAHAM: Yes. Thanks, John.

As to how long? The answer is, until the job's done. Not one minute longer, not one minute less. And what is the job? The ability of this country to have the capacity to maintain its freedom. That just doesn't mean numbers with guns, that means institutions that work; judges and courtrooms that work for all Iraqis, regardless of your ethnic background or your religious differences. A finance ministry that can collect taxes and pay the bills. When you look at what is ahead for this country, there is reason to be very hopeful it could change the whole region. But as John said, to underestimate what lies ahead is a mistake.

How long? I don't know, but to leave too soon would be devastating. To stay too long would be unnecessary. The Iraqi people have their fate in their hands but we're essential partners in that process. And I ask the American people to have patience because what happens here directly affects our security at home.

Now, as to Social Security, speaking of our security. There is no Social Security without national security. But we have a challenge domestically as well as internationally. It is time for the country, as a whole, to make sacrifices for the common good.

We're here sacrificing to make the world safer in light of people who want to take us back to the darkness, extremists who would have no role for a woman, other than to just be seen and not heard, and barely be seen.

We have a chance, at home, in a bi-partisan way to address Social Security and permanently fix it. I'm a Republican. I am telling you right now that you cannot fix the Social Security System at home as a Republican Party. And the idea of asking people who make over $90,000 to pay extra for a permanent solution, I think would be well accepted by the country as a whole.

I support that, and I will as my Democratic colleagues to reject rigid ideology and work with the president to find a solution that will save Social Security, sacrifice will be required.

MCCAIN: On the issue of withdrawal, let me just point out, I think it is a false argument. The key to our continue presence here is not how long we stay, it is the U.S. casualties. We've been in South Korea for more than 50 years. Americans are perfectly happy with that. We've been in Bosnia, we've been in all over the world, but we don't have casualties. If we can bring American casualties down as the Iraqis take over military and law enforcement responsibilities, then I think the American people will be satisfied to see significant progress. I think that is the key to it, rather whether we withdraw or not.

GRAHAM: Can I add one last thing?

MCCAIN: Yes, go ahead.

GRAHAM: Ronald Reagan was a pretty good conservative. Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neil sat down together, going back to Social Security, and Ronald Reagan agreed to raise tax rates. Tip O'Neil changed the age limit from 65 to 67. They part their ideology and the focus on the common good. That is what we need to do now to save Social Security in a permanent fashion.

MCCAIN: Two great Americans.

Finally, quick.

QUESTION: John Burns (ph), "New York Times", for Senator Clinton and for you Senator McCain.

Many people who come here after a absence of some time are shocked at the deterioration in security. Although, you have not been outside the Green Zone, you will have noticed the enormous elaborate security that is required, even to move you around within the Green Zone.

MCCAIN: We paid attention to your reporting, as well.

QUESTION: So, I wonder if you could both give us your sense, what that means to you to come here? What are you going to be telling people -- not at news conferences, but what are you going to be telling the 42nd president of the United States -- in terms of Clinton -- when you get home, in your kitchen? What is your feeling about this?

CLINTON: Well, it is mixed. Because I was last here at the end of 2003. And I was able to drive from the airport into Baghdad, for example. It is regrettable that the security needs have increased so much. On the other hand, I think you can look at the country as a whole and see that there are many parts of Iraq that are functioning quite well. There might be occasional problems but it is not the steady drumbeat. In addition, the concerted effort to disrupt the elections was an abject failure. Not one polling place was shutdown or overrun. And the fact that you have these suicide bombers, now wreaking such hatred and violence, while people pray, is to me an indication of their failure.

So, while yes, it is somewhat disheartening that there is so much more security, that we ourselves are subjected to. On the other hand, I think that the election and the desperation of this so-called insurgency is becoming clearer by the day. And I'm hoping that the Iraqi government and the Iraqi security forces will continue to get stronger in the face of that challenge.

MCCAIN: I've said many times that we have made serious mistakes and we've paid a heavy price for those mistakes. And I have pointed them out a long time ago. But the fact is that the elections have taken place. The fact is, as Senator Clinton pointed out, there are many parts of this country that are functioning very well and very safely. And the consequences of failure are devastating and the prospects of success, not only here but in the entire Middle East are intoxicating.

So, we have a long, hard, difficult struggle ahead of us, but I am far more optimistic than I was before the election, because the Iraqi people proved that they would brave the risk of their very lives in order to choose their government. To me that's very encouraging. Thanks very much.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you all invest. Very much.

BETTY NGUYEN, CNN ANCHOR: You have been listening to a U.S. Senate delegation which has arrived in Iraq. That delegation made up of Senators, McCain, Clinton, Feingold, Collins and Graham. While there they are going to be focusing on a number of different issues, including are, U.S. getting the necessary information and equipment needed to stay safe in Iraq. A lot of other issues as well, we'll be talking about within the next half hour.


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