(ran East edition of Pasco Times)
After a recent trip to Iraq, U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite was left with one lasting impression.
"We need to stay longer," she said. "We're just trying to get them to the 20th century … forget the 21st."
Part of a no-frills, four-member congressional delegation to visit the country, Brown-Waite said U.S. forces have made a great deal of progress but still have much to do. She last visited Iraq in 2003.
"There were a lot of differences," she said. "Kids are out playing in the streets. I saw three times as many satellite dishes."
Brown-Waite's group was the second congressional delegation to stay in Baghdad. Legislators were housed in one of Saddam Hussein's old palaces, with makeshift chip board walls sectioning off rooms.
"The accommodations were pretty Spartan," she said.
During a packed two and a half days, the group traveled throughout the country by helicopter and C-130, visiting with recently elected members of parliament and the U.S. military. Brown-Waite said officers told her they needed more time to train Iraqi military and civilian police.
Police also need military training because they might have to respond to terrorist threats, she said.
U.S. troops "are trying to encourage leadership," Brown-Waite said. "Since the country lived under a dictator, leadership was a foreign concept."
Despite such challenges, the congresswoman said she thinks Iraqis will continue to become more independent, especially when they realize the power of their natural resources.
"There's a tremendous amount of natural gas in the south … they're just allowing it to flame," she said. "It's such a waste. It could be sold."
She added that Iraqis are becoming more accustomed to the idea of democracy. Increased exposure to the outside world, such as newly inaugurated international flights, will help move the country forward, she said.
Troops that Brown-Waite met told her they believed in their mission in Iraq. In the city of Telefar, she talked with about 10 service members from Florida, including troops from Cedar Key and Weeki Wachee.
"When I asked the troops if what we're doing is right, they all said yes," she said.
Brown-Waite was particularly touched by a soldier she met from South Florida. Though he missed his five children, he was in no rush to go back to the States.
"He told me, "My wife supports me and believes in what I'm doing,' " she said. " "If kids in Iraq are safe on the streets, then our children will be safe from terrorist attacks.' "