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US Congressional Delegation Briefs Media on Mideast Trip - 2003-11-13

Members of a U.S. congressional delegation Thursday briefed the news media on their just-concluded visit to Iraq, Syria and Jordan.

The focus of the five-day trip was a visit to Iraq for meetings with members of the Iraqi Governing Council and U.S. troops. The 10-member delegation made stops in Baghdad and Kirkuk.

Congressman Jim Kolbe, chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on Foreign Operations and an Arizona Republican, led the group.

Despite the slow pace of reconstruction and the daily attacks on U.S.-led coalition troops by loyalists to former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and other forces, Congressman Kolbe says he remains hopeful about the situation in Iraq.

"There is no doubt about it, that there is a lot of hard slogging ahead," he said. "We do not have an easy task ahead of us. But it is a task we must fulfill, we must complete. I think it is one that is very definitely winnable"

But Congressman Jim Moran, a Virginia Democrat and the only member of the delegation who opposed authorizing President Bush to go to war in Iraq earlier this year, sounded less optimistic.

"I'm afraid it may get worse before it gets better," he said.

Delegation members expressed frustration with the pace of the transition to self-rule overseen by the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, which faces a December 15 U.N.-imposed deadline to come up with a timetable for a constitution.

President Bush has ordered the U.S. administrator for Iraq, Ambassador Paul Bremer, to develop a strategy to accelerate the transfer to self-rule there.

Congressman Moran embraced the idea of Iraqis voting within six months for a transitional government that would draft a new constitution and assume larger executive powers before full elections some time later.

But Congressman Kolbe was less enthusiastic about that idea.

"There is no one leader that clearly comes to the surface who could be an interim president at this point, which is why we went with the Governing Council," said Jim Kolbe.

Congressman Kolbe also discussed his delegation's visit to Damascus, where they met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Mr. Kolbe said he found the Syrian leader conciliatory. The congressman said he called for Syria's cooperation in the effort to stabilize Iraq and bring peace to the Middle East. He praised Damascus for its work in identifying $500 million in assets held in Syrian banks belonging to the regime of deposed leader Saddam Hussein.

"I think there are signs here for hope in this relationship that we can make it a much more productive relationship," he said.

But Syria is angered by sanctions legislation approved by Congress this week.

Congressman Kolbe explained to President Assad that the measure, which tightens diplomatic and economic sanctions against Syria, is an expression of Congress' frustration that Damascus is not doing enough to fight terrorism. Before the congressmen returned to Washington Wednesday, they stopped in Amman for meetings with Jordanian officials, and flew to Germany to visit a U.S. military hospital where American troops wounded in Iraq are being treated.