Pingree visits Iraq with congressional delegation

Posted Feb. 17, 2009, at 9:57 p.m.

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, after a visit to Iraq this week, said she remains uncertain about whether that country has become secure enough for U.S. forces to leave.

Pingree, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, is one of six House members — three Democrats and three Republicans — who went to Iraq to better understand the effectiveness of U.S. military and reconstruction efforts almost six years after the United States invaded the Middle Eastern nation.

The six are spending most of the congressional recess this week in the Middle East.

On Sunday, they visited an open-air market outside Baghdad and lunched with military service members, according to Pingree spokesman Willy Ritch. The representatives also met with Gen. Ray Odierno, the commander of multinational forces in Iraq.

Pingree said in a telephone interview that the country is “clearly becoming more secure,” though the question remains, she added, whether it is safe enough for U.S. forces to withdraw.

She said members of Congress are always protected under the strictest security while visiting Iraq.

“For all the gains that we’ve made, we spend our entire time in armored cars and … are never more than five inches away from someone with a lot of weapons,” Pingree said. “It’s not a secure place to be.”

The group spent two days in Iraq before moving on to another country in the region. For safety reasons, military organizers are keeping the times and locations of the delegation’s forthcoming visits secret until all the members return to the United States, Ritch said.

The Armed Services Committee warned its members traveling to Iraq against talking about their trip before returning, including communication by Web sites. That caveat was added after Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., stoked a controversy by posting real-time updates of his trip to Afghanistan and Iraq earlier this month to the free Web site twitter.com. Hoekstra is the senior minority member of the House Intelligence Committee.

Pingree said members were given “very strict orders not to talk about a country until we’re out of that country.”

“It is interesting, in an age of communication, our BlackBerrys work in the strangest places,” she said. “But it is what we do. We want to be in touch with our constituents all the time.”

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