Governor: Baghdad 'out of hand'
Back from a whirlwind trip to Iraq in March, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. reflected cautiously on what he'd seen.
U.S. troops there were doing "a difficult job," he said. The war-torn nation was "at a crossroads." And despite a slew of violent attacks during his visit, he retained "great hope" for the future.
Yet the governor couldn't dodge his disappointment with the state of security in Baghdad. The Iraqi capital, he said, was "a caldron of instability and hatred."
Back in Baghdad on Tuesday, Huntsman said he was dismayed over how much worse things had gotten since his last trip - eight months and some 16,000 Iraqi lives ago.
Without a change of direction in Iraq, he said in a telephone interview, "I am less optimistic about a successful outcome," noting the security of the war-torn nation's capital portends the rest of the country. He said the caldron he saw previously "has reached the boiling point."
Huntsman still won't call it a civil war - a hot-button description Bush administration officials have shunned even as sectarian violence has eclipsed insurgent attacks as the chief cause of death for Iraqis. But Huntsman acknowledged that the "extreme violence" was "worse than it was when I was there last," when the governor had said civil war could emerge within months.
Now, "all I can tell you is that the security situation in Baghdad is out of hand," Huntsman said Tuesday from Kuwait, where he was awaiting travel to Afghanistan.
Huntsman's apparent pessimism is shared by his fellow Utahns, only about 1-in-10 say they are more optimistic this year than they were last about chances for success in Iraq, according to an August poll commissioned by The Salt Lake Tribune. About two-thirds of Americans say they now oppose the war in Iraq, according to a CNN poll conducted last week.
Huntsman toured U.S. military bases in Baghdad, Tikrit and Balad with three other governors.
In the latter location, about 50 miles north of the Iraqi capital, Huntsman met with members of the 2-211th Aviation Battalion. The company of soldiers - Black Hawk helicopter pilots, aircrew members and mechanics - deployed in March.
Huntsman's delegation, which includes Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, New York Gov. George Pataki and New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, travels to Pakistan today en route to Afghanistan, where he is hoping to meet Guardsmen from the Utah-based I-Corps Artillery.
Huntsman drew a distinction between the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying the latter was "more consistent with our traditional approach in the war on terror." Though sometimes overshadowed by the less popular conflict in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan has been no less violent, with fatality rates among U.S. and allied troops there exceeding those in Iraq in three of the past four months, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Defense and NATO, which now oversees operations in Afghanistan.
"Afghanistan is a dangerous and troublesome area right now," Huntsman said, noting the resurgence of the Taliban, which controlled Afghanistan prior to the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
"Scott Lundell is sadly the most recent example of how dangerous the Taliban is," Huntsman said.
Lundell, an I-Corps soldier from West Valley City, was killed Saturday in a firefight with insurgents armed with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, the Army has reported.
Huntsman said he planned to visit Lundell's family when he returned and hoped to meet some of the soldiers with whom the slain lieutenant served while in Afghanistan.
"It's a difficult time for them right now, I am sure," he said.
The governor said his latest Middle Eastern sojourn would end Saturday, when his delegation is scheduled to visit Landstuhl Army Medical Center in Germany, where wounded U.S. troops are treated after being wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The hospital has treated more than 6,000 wounded U.S. service members since 2001. About 100 members of the Salt Lake City-based 328th Combat Support Hospital work at Landstuhl.