Nixon notes improved conditions in Iraq

Wednesday, July 21, 2010 | 5:41 p.m. CDT

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Five U.S. governors visiting Iraq said Wednesday that conditions have improved, with Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon pronouncing President Barack Obama's goal of reducing U.S. forces to 50,000 troops by Sept. 1 achievable.

Also on the trip were Govs. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Mike Rounds of South Dakota and Jim Douglas of Vermont. Nixon said Lt. Gen. Kenneth Hunzeker, deputy commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and the commander responsible for the troop drawdown, briefed them on the reduction in forces.

"It's my sense that the United States will clearly meet the goal to get down to 50,000 troops by Sept. 1," said Nixon, a Democrat. "At the same time we're doing that, the country is getting safer and there have been fewer security incidents."

Pawlenty and Rounds also noted improving conditions.

Pawlenty, a potential GOP presidential candidate making his fifth trip to Iraq, said "dramatic, significant, positive progress" has been made since 2006 and 2007.

"There's a hopeful sense here, a more stable sense than on some of my recent previous trips," he said.

Rounds, a Republican, expressed optimism about Iraq's struggle to form a new government since March elections produced no clear winner.

"They're trying to put together a new government, and with that comes some uneasiness, just in that everybody had hoped that it might have happened already," he said. "But they're learning."

Disclosure of details of the trip was uneven, with Pawlenty declining to provide more than general details about the governors' whereabouts in Iraq. But a release from Patrick's office said they left Tuesday from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland and flew to Kuwait before continuing on to Baghdad.

Nixon's office said the governors lunched with troops at Camp Victory and cooked out with soldiers at Al Faw Palace in Baghdad.

Pawlenty wouldn't disclose where they were headed or whether they would continue to travel together.

After trips to Iraq last year and in 2007, Pawlenty continued to Afghanistan.

At the National Governors Association meeting in Boston 10 days ago, the governors were provided a classified national security briefing by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and John Brennan, Obama's chief counterterrorism adviser.

It reportedly covered an update on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as domestic terrorism, including the attempted Times Square car bombing and the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner. Patrick, Pawlenty and Rounds were among those attending the meeting.

Before departing Tuesday, the five governors visited wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and attended Pentagon briefings. They traveled with Gen. Craig R. McKinley, chief of the National Guard Bureau.

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