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Congressman, Iraq Vet, Back from Baghdad

NEAL CONAN, host:

Freshman Congressman Patrick Murphy has been on the job just two months, yet he's just back from a trip to Iraq to visit U.S. troops. It was a homecoming of sorts. Back in 2003-04 the Pennsylvania Democrat was a captain in the 82nd Airborne Division based in Baghdad. He's the only Iraq war veteran in Congress and a vocal opponent of President Bush's troop build up.

If you have questions for Congressman Murphy about his time in Baghdad, as a paratrooper or as a politician, or about the Democrats plan to withdraw combat troops, unveiled this morning, give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

Congressman Murphy joins us now by phone from his office here in Washington. Nice to have you on the program today.

Representative PATRICK MURPHY (Democrat, Pennsylvania): Thank you, Neal, so much for having me. It's a great day here in Washington.

CONAN: And a great day, I assume, from your point of view because of Speaker Pelosi's announcement this morning of that legislation that would bring troops home by the fall of 2008.

Rep. MURPHY: Absolutely. I think it shows that there's a new sheriff in town and that's the Democrat Congress. And I'm very proud of what Speaker Pelosi's trying to do in that, you know, we're not going to give a blank check to the president anymore.

And I think, you know, what the proposal is - although we're still working out some of the details - I think it's pretty clear that it's going to demand finally accountability from the president and also accountability, more importantly, from the Iraqis.

CONAN: And as I understand it, the outlines of the bill would require the president to certify that certain milestones have been met by the Iraqi government?

Rep. MURPHY: That's correct. Yes. Things that they've already promised. Things such as, you know, amending their Iraqi constitution, which they're already promised. Things such as making sure that they are doing what's necessary to sharing the oil and to give the Sunnis - who have been out of power - some of the rights that they were promised before.

CONAN: And this would also come under - be criticized - indeed it's already being criticized by Republicans - as micromanaging the war.

Rep. MURPHY: Well, you've got to expect that they're going to complain about something. And the reality of it is, I think it actually doesn't micromanage the war. What it does set is a very clear timeline and has some consequences if the Iraqis fail to meet the benchmarks.

And the reality of it is, is that this proposal - which, you know, that I have seen, and I know they're working on some more of the details and I look forward to seeing those. But from what I've seen so far, Neal, that it's very clear that it just sets a timeline.

And if the president reports to Congress and says the Iraqis are meeting their benchmarks and are making some progress, then it does start the clock starting March of 2008 to start bringing our troops home, which is the goal. And so we could bring our troops home and refocus in the Middle East, back on Afghanistan.

CONAN: Now, as you know this is going to get criticism, not just from Republicans. There are some in your party who say fall 2008, are you kidding. U.S. troops should be out of there in six months. And there are some in your party who are going to be reluctant to vote against what people in narrow districts - previously Republican districts, and I should point out that might include your district, too - but conservative Democrats who are reluctant to vote for something that they say goes too far.

Rep. MURPHY: Well, you know, and I think that that shows that it's a good piece of legislation, because people on the left of our party and the people on the right of our party have problems with it. And it's a piece of legislation that will generate support from the moderates in our district, but more, also importantly, is some Republicans as well that we need to pass this bill in Congress.

And Speaker Pelosi mentioned in the beginning when she took the oath as Speaker of the House of Representatives that she was not just going to be the speaker for the Democrats. She was going to be the speaker for the entire house, Democrats and Republican. And I do believe we'll see some Republicans come on board here, because it's very clear that the one thing that we learned in the election of 2006, and specifically in my race, that people are hungry for change in Iraq and here at home as well.

We've done great things here - domestic policy - the six row six, the raising the minimum wage, the investing in embryonic stem cell research, the cutting the oil - the tax breaks for big oil companies that are charging everyday families record prices.

On the domestic side we've delivered and we're very excited about that, but here in Iraq, it's a bill that has teeth that gives the funding for the troops right now and veterans benefits, but what it does do, it also has consequences, in that it says, Mr. President, no longer do we just have an open-ended commitment in Iraq. The Iraqis made progress. We start re-deploying our troops started March of 2008.

CONAN: And I want to get listeners a change to talk to you as well, but I needed to ask you something else about your trip back to Baghdad. I read an interview that you gave just after you returned earlier this week and said it was Groundhog Day all over again. Things hadn't really changed much since you left in 2004.

Rep. MURPHY: You know, Neal, our troops are doing a great job over there, but they're given almost an impossible mission. And the first morning I was in Baghdad, I was greeted at about 6:40 in the morning with a car bomb about a quarter of a mile away. And you know, I lived that life when I was there as a captain with 82nd Airborne Division back in 2003, and the result of that was that we lost 19 of our fellow paratroopers in our combat brigade.

What we need to do now is change direction in Iraq. Iraqis still today, for the most part, are sitting on the sideline. And the Iraq Study Group - General Abizaid, General Colin Powell - they've all been clear that it's going to demand an Iraqi solution to this Iraqi problem.

It's a question of willpower, not a question of, you know, do they have enough weapons to defend themselves. So that's why it's so important that we demand accountability from this president and his administration, and start the re-deployment of our troops and start coming home.

CONAN: Let me ask you, earlier today, General David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, held his first new conference. He's been there just about a month, I guess. And he said, if you look around Baghdad, things are being done differently - and we're going to play this cut of tape here - and that there's a difference in the way that troops are deployed in the neighborhoods.

General DAVID PETRAEUS (Commander of United States Forces in Iraq): I think if you have been driving around Baghdad and have been on a number of patrols with our soldiers, visited the joint security stations, walked through the (unintelligible) Market - which has been completely hardened. Again I think, you know, you've seen that our soldiers are living in the neighborhoods they are securing, and that really is a principle of counter-insurgency operations, of operations that you have to carry out.

CONAN: And General David Petraeus, speaking earlier this morning. Did you notice any of those changes when you were back in Baghdad - and would those changes, do you think, make a difference?

Rep. MURPHY: Well, I didn't get to see completely the changes in the neighborhoods because for security reasons, we couldn't run convoys. We were chopper - helicoptered all around where we were going in Taji and Balad, and then in the green zone in Baghdad.

But you know, when I was there in 2003, we did live in the cities. We had four operating bases all throughout my sector, which was al-Rashid(ph), Baghdad -one of the largest sectors in Baghdad, 1.5 million Iraqis. But you know, what's important to note is in that al-Rashid part of Baghdad - there's 1.5 million Iraqis. That's the same size as the city of Philadelphia.

Well, my father served as a copy in Philadelphia for 22 years. There's 7,000 cops in Philadelphia. There's only 3,500 of us in al-Rashid, half as many law enforcement in the middle of a combat zone where we didn't speak the same language. And so, the reality of the situation is, is that the call for more troops was four years ago, when General Shinseki testified in Congress - when others said that we need more troops, and this administration tried to do it on the cheap.

And we needed not just 20,000 more, we needed over 150,000 more, 200,000 more, and we didn't get it, and so now it's incumbent on the Iraqis to stand up to fight for their country. I served with General Petraeus in an earlier deployment, in 2002 when we were both in Bosnia, and he was the NATO commander out of Sarajevo, and I was up in Tusla, and I have great respect for him, but he's given almost an impossible task right now.

It's a three-leg stool as far as a solution: the military part of the leg, an economic part of the leg and a political part of the leg. The Iraqis have to make sure that as far as the political part of the leg, that they bring the Sunnis to the table, and as far as the economic redevelopment, that's the $10 billion in economic redevelopment, they need to spend. They have the money in their account. They need to spend their own money for the redevelopment project.

And you know, the last thing - and I don't want to talk too long because I know there's people calling in - I offered a bill with Senator Barack Obama and Congressman Mike Thompson, called The Iraq De-escalation Act, which set the 12-month timeline starting here in March of 2008, and I think that's the best piece of legislation. It's a binding piece of legislation that starts bringing our troops home.

So I'm proud of our work. We have over 50 co-sponsors. We're getting more and more every single day, and I'm very proud of our efforts on that.

CONAN: Well, let's get listeners a chance to get on the line with you, then: 800-989-8255 if you'd like to join us, e-mail talk@npr.org. We'll begin with Brianna(ph), Brianna's calling us from Vancouver in Washington.

Brianna (Caller): First, I wanted to say thank you very much for bringing some experience and intelligence to this debate in the Senate and the House. My husband is currently in Iraq. He was originally supposed to go in June of this year and was sent over in February. He's involved in Sadr City right now, but he called me two weeks ago, telling me that they don't even have places for his unit to sleep.

It's one thing to send a surge, but from my understanding, they've sent a surge without having enough supplies and places to even house the people that are there.

CONAN: Yeah, the old line is that amateurs talk about strategy. Professionals talk about logistics, which of course includes things like places to sleep -Congressman Murphy.

Rep. MURPHY: Well Brianna, I can tell you that the brunt of this war has been on the people who are serving in the military and their families. And I will keep you and your husband in my prayers every single night. And I know how heartbreaking it must be to have a loved one over there. And I can tell you that I will do everything in my power to make sure that we're protecting your husband and the men and women that he's serving with.

This is the first I'm hearing of something like this, but I can tell you if maybe Neal can put us offline or have his producers let me know your name and e-mail and address, we will address this situation because this is the first I'm hearing of that. And to say I'm disheartened and upset about this, is an understatement.

CONAN: Brianna, I'll put your call on hold, and we'll get somebody to take down the information so you can get in touch with Congressman Murphy, okay?

BRIANNA: Thank you.

CONAN: All right. Find the right button, there we go. All right, we're talking with Congressman Patrick Murphy, the only Iraq war veteran currently serving in Congress. I should point also, at the age of 33, the youngest member of Congress. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line, and this is John(ph), John's with us from Salt Lake City.

JOHN (Caller): How are you doing?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

JOHN: Good. In the past, the rules for deployments of National Guard required that National Guard soldiers not be deployed more than two years out of a five year period. Now, that was recently changed by Congress so that everybody's National Guard clock has been reset.

Anybody, regardless of how many times they've deployed, can now be called up again.

CONAN: Right.

JOHN: So as a National Guard soldier who's been over there twice already, two years since the war began, I'm a little disappointed to find out that my part-time job could jump up on me again.

CONAN: Yeah, the rules are being changed after you signed up.

JOHN: Exactly.

CONAN: Is that fair, Congressman Murphy?

Rep. MURPHY: I think that's absolutely fair. John, you and I, you know, obviously served in the same military, same - we're both proud of our service. It's as if you're doing a physical training fitness test, and you're supposed to run two miles, and then you're getting to the two-mile marker, and they say now you need to run another mile, another three or four miles. And to say it's disheartening to you and to the families back home is really - it's crippling.

And John, I would like to mention my roommate here in Washington - I, you know, I live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, but I have a very, very small apartment here in Washington with a guy, Tim Walz, Congressman Tim Walz from the state of Minnesota. He was a command sergeant major in the Minnesota National Guard. And just yesterday, John, you wouldn't believe that a unit out of the Minnesota National Guard, who just came back from Iraq, got order and said you are now going to Kosovo.

And not only were they going to Kosovo, but they're going to Kosovo and now not getting the combat, the deployment pay, that everyone else gets. And you look at what the State Department is doing, the State Department has people in Kosovo, they give combat pay, and they don't even give our own soldiers now combat pay. You know, it's kind of doing it on the cheap.

Now, I came down here to Congress to make sure that we're protecting troops, to make sure that we're doing everything possible to support the troops and being smart about things. And what's not being smart about it is saying to some private in the Minnesota National Guard: Thanks for your service in Iraq. You're not going to Kosovo, and even though you're only making $19,000 a year, and when you get deployed you get at least tax-free benefits - now we're going to tax your pay, you know, probably a third, where you're going to make now about $14,000 a year, serving in a place like Kosovo where you can't walk on the grass because there are still mines - but our military will say it's not a combat to where it's not really a deployment anymore.

That's what's wrong with the current policies that are in effect right now. And guys like Tim Walz and myself will go to the mat for every single soldier, whether they're active duty, National Guard or reservists - every single day when we're down here.

CONAN: John, thanks very much for the call. Good luck to you.

JOHN: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we can talk now with, this is Kyle(ph). Kyle's with us from Louisville, Kentucky.

KYLE (Caller): Hi there, Neal, thank you very much for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

KYLE: I just want to say I am a Democrat and almost a conservative, and I very much agree with Congressman Murphy. And I think he's a very sympathetic individual, and I really appreciate his view on the War in Iraq. And I think it's entirely appropriate for this day and age and the way that we are addressing this war.

I think it's great, and I think it's good that we have someone like that in the Congress and someone who's going for what he believes and he's not afraid to say what he thinks about it all. And I just want to say, like I said before, I am opposed to it all, but what I want to say is if President Bush wants to send a surge of 21,500 troops to Iraq, it's almost meaningless.

I heard a few things on NPR about how essentially there's going to be 6,000 trigger-pullers whenever it comes, because there's going to be desk jockeys and people doing intel and linguistics, and yadda yadda with this new surge of troops. And when it comes down to it, you're going to have about 5,000 troops on the ground, you know, looking for insurgents, knocking down doors, clearing houses and doing the things they've got to do to do their duty.

But I think it might defeat the purpose, and it's just a little too late. I think like…

CONAN: Yeah, we're running out of time. Could you make it quick please, Kyle?

KYLE: Yes, sir, I'm sorry. I just want to say it's a little too late, and if George W. wants to make a surge, he needs to do it quickly, and he needs to do it really hard. And I don't think he should do it, but if he was going to do it, 21,000 is little too late.

CONAN: Just on those numbers - we have very little time left, Congressman, but as I understand it, the number's now 30,000.

Rep. MURPHY: Yes. I mean, when they talked about 21,000 troops, that was the trigger-pullers that they said they were talking about, there's - the other supply side was at least 30,000, if not up to 40,000.

So if you look at - you know, you want your government to be straight to the American public. You know, how many is it really, is the surge going to take, and when you look at the tactics of any type of military operations, when you call for a surge in military terminology, a surge isn't spread out over four months. That's an escalation, and that's what this is going on right now.

CONAN: Congressman Murphy…

Rep. MURPHY: (Unintelligible) very quick, within a few weeks, and I just want to say…

CONAN: I'm afraid we're out of time, Congressman, but I wanted to thank you very much for being with us today.

Rep. MURPHY: Thank you. I appreciate it, Neal. I'm looking forward to coming back on the show soon.

CONAN: Congressman Patrick Murphy, Democrat of Pennsylvania. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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