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Shaheen sees progress in Iraq

U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen yesterday sounded cautiously optimistic about the progress U.S. troops are making in Iraq.

Fresh off a 10-day trip to the Middle East, Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat, said she was hopeful that the different ethnic groups in Iraq would be able to cooperate and retake control of the country as American troops withdraw. Since Jan. 1, 2009, Shaheen said the U.S. has redeployed 70,000 troops - bringing the total number of troops in Iraq down to 76,000.

"Despite the fact that there are still security issues, we were pleased to hear the redeployment has not led to a massive return to violence and civil war," Shaheen told reporters in a conference call. "Where they have withdrawn, Iraqi forces have done a very good and competent job of taking over."

Shaheen, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, traveled to Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Israel, Lebanon and Egypt, together with Sens. Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat, and Ted Kaufman, a Delaware Democrat.

In Iraq, she said the delegation met Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, former Interim prime minister Iyad Allawi and President Jalal Talabani, in addition to the commander of U.S. troops General Ray Odierno. Shaheen said she stressed to the Iraqi leaders the importance of working together.

"We impressed on them how important it is that they work to resolve their differences, and put together a government that could begin to take charge in Iraq," Shaheen said.

Though relationships between the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds have often degenerated into sectarian violence, Shaheen said the Iraqi leaders talked about cooperating within the Iraqi forces.

"These are obviously three groups who during the war in most cases didn't get along very well," Shaheen said. "They talked about how they've been able to co-staff checkpoint sites . . . to go through those checkpoints one by one, to talk about how to remove them, who's responsible for what."

Iraq held elections in March, but the election did not produce a clear winner. The political factions have been unable to form a new government. Shaheen said the delegation told the Iraqi leaders that "instability loves a vacuum."

"Putting together a government and ending the political impasse is going to be very important to keeping progress moving," she said.

Shaheen said the Iraqis, particularly Talabani, who is a Kurd, told the delegation that they wanted an inclusive government.

"If people feel like they have a role in the government that's substantive, that gives them an opportunity to have input and a significant voice, that will go a long way towards addressing some of these other concerns," she said.

During her Senate campaign in 2002, Shaheen said she supported Bush's goal of regime change in Iraq. In 2004, she criticized Bush for misleading the country into war. Shaheen has said in the past that she changed her mind after finding out that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction and did not have ties to al-Qaida, as Bush had claimed.

Shaheen said yesterday that her position on the war - that Bush should not have started it - had not changed. But, she said, "the fact is he did go in and what the military has been able to accomplish has been very impressive."

Overall, Shaheen said it is too early to tell if the Iraq war will be judged a success. She said the country is more stable than it was three years ago. People were walking the streets, and stores were reopening. On the other hand, there were mortar attacks on the U.S. Embassy compound where the delegation was staying in Baghdad. The delegation had to wear body armor and traveled in armored cars.

"It's a situation where they need to form a civilian government that can take control and to continue to draw down the rest of our forces, and we need to continue to monitor the situation as both those two things are occurring," Shaheen said.

Shaheen also talked briefly about her stop in Israel, where the delegation met with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni. The group traveled to Sderot, an Israeli town frequently hit by missiles launched from Gaza. They visited Ramallah to meet with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

Shaheen said the delegation talked to Israeli leaders about how to move forward with a peace process that includes a two-state solution, and how to address the threat posed to Israel and other countries by a nuclear Iran.

There has been tension in recent months between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In March, Obama would not have his picture taken with Netanyahu. The apparent snub came after the Israeli government overshadowed a visit by Vice President Joe Biden by announcing the construction of new Israeli homes in East Jerusalem - an area the Palestinians want to claim for themselves.

But last week, Obama and Netanyahu met again, this time in an apparently amicable meeting. Asked about the tensions between the U.S. and Israel, Shaheen referred to the leaders' latest meeting.

"All reports we had from what we saw of coverage in the U.S. and from Israelis we met with was it was a very positive meeting," Shaheen said.

Shaheen said both Israeli and Palestinian leaders appeared interested in moving the peace process forward, with Israelis talking about the potential for direct talks.

"We talked about our interest in doing everything we can . . . and in seeing the process move forward," Shaheen said.