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Walden: Troops believe in mission

When U.S. Rep. Greg Walden left Iraq for Kuwait, the remains of three dead American soldiers in body bags were on board the military C-130.

Those body bags, the result of attacks in Iraq where six Americans have died this week, including two on Thursday, were grim reminders of the dangers that await Americans in that war-torn land where killing continues, Walden acknowledged.

But the Republican, part of an eight-member bipartisan House delegation that spent this past week in Iraq on a fact-finding mission, said that progress being made by the U.S.-led occupation forces is extraordinary, particularly given the circumstances.

Iraqi children are attending school, more power is being generated than before the war and urban infrastructure is being rebuilt, including civil police forces, he said. Some 13,000 reconstruction projects have been completed, he said.

— It's very difficult, very heavy lifting, very dangerous work, he said during a telephone conference call with members of the Oregon print media late Friday shortly after arriving back in Washington, D.C.

There is no option but to rebuild Iraq, he concluded.

If we cut and run, several things happen: America loses credibility in the Arab world, and we turn the country over to Saddam loyalists who will go on a murderous rampage.

The trip changed his mind regarding the &

36;87 billion request by President Bush, including &

36;20 billion for reconstruction of Iraq, he said, noting he initially supported having the reconstruction portion in the form of a loan.

I came away thinking a loan would, in effect, put our soldiers' lives in greater danger, he said, noting a loan would further saddle Iraq with debt, causing many Iraqis to wrongly believe there was a financial motive for the war.

A loan would also undermine a donors conference scheduled for Madrid in two weeks, he added, in which the Bush administration will seek commitments of troops and financial support from other nations.

While meeting with troops from Oregon, Walden reported that they are largely upbeat, despite the hardships. Every soldier he talked to supported the effort in Iraq, he said.

Of course, they would like to come home; most of them have been there a long time, he said. But they are in good shape and in good spirits.

The troops he talked to weren't influenced by the congressional presence or their superiors, he said.

They were very open, he said, noting there were some complaints concerning a longer-than-expected rotation, the lack of Red Cross items getting through to them and the difficulty of contacting loved ones back home.

The troops tell me that 90 to 95 percent of the Iraqis over there support us, he said. ... There is a lot of pride over there, and the commitment we're doing the right thing.

But Walden was quick to observe that many more difficulties lie ahead.

We'll never turn them (Iraqis) all around, but every day it gets better and safer, he said.

Yet he is concerned that the ranks of the American forces are stretched thin and need international reinforcement. He also would like to see more Arab interpreters and better equipment for the troops already on the ground.

I went over there wondering when we were going to leave, he said. I came away thinking that, if we come away too soon, it will be a disaster.

I think they are doing a lot of good, he added later.

If he met the parents of one of the dead American soldiers on the C-130, Walden said it would be difficult to explain to them why their son died.

But I would tell them their sons were doing extraordinary work, that they can be proud of the work they were doing, he said.

I would tell them their son helped free a country a long ways from ours of a very brutal dictatorship, he added. I would tell them it was a good cause for the people of that country, something that will bring eventual peace to the Middle East and the world.

The Hood River resident represents the 2nd Congressional District, which includes Jackson and Josephine counties as well as Eastern Oregon.

He was joined in the trip by Reps. Fred Upton, R-Mich.; Mike Castle, R-Del.; Amo Houghton, R-N.Y.; Wayne Gilchrest, R-Md.; Ron Kind, D-Wis.; Jim Davis, D-Fla.; and Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y.

They visited several cities in the Sunni Triangle, the region where the majority of attacks against American troops is continuing.

The delegates met with American and Iraqi officials, including Paul Bremer, the U.S. civilian leader in Iraq, and various military leaders.

Meanwhile, more than 600 members of the Oregon Army National Guard's 1st Battalion, 262nd Infantry is being mobilized to go to Iraq.

That unit is based in Cottage Grove but 125 members of the local guard unit headquartered in Ashland have volunteered to join the 1-262. The citizen soldiers are expected to be deployed to Iraq this spring after extensive training for four months in Fort Hood, Texas.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at