Rep. Paul Ryan, returning from his first trip to Iraq, said Thursday that the U.S. decision to send 21,500 troops to Iraq represents the last opportunity for success.
"We made it very clear to the Iraqis this is their last chance, that the American people are quickly losing their patience," said Ryan, R-Wis., in a telephone interview. "And this new strategy is the last chance that they're going to get to make it work."
Ryan traveled to Iraq as part of a congressional delegation led by Rep. Martin Meehan, D-Mass., the chairman of the newly created House Armed Services subcommittee on oversight and investigations. The group met with Gen. David Petraeus, the new chief commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, as well as other generals, soldiers, Iraqi government officials and others. The trip lasted from Saturday through Thursday.
Ryan said the next six months will determine whether the situation was "winnable."
"It's going to be tough," Ryan said. "Within three months we'll know whether momentum is headed in the right direction; and we'll know within six months whether the results will begin to materialize or not.
"In my mind, if by the end of the summer, it's clear that this isn't working, we're going to have to go to Plan B and start withdrawing troops."
Last week, when the House approved a nonbinding resolution opposing President Bush's decision to deploy more troops to Iraq, Ryan was one of just two Wisconsin members to vote against it, along with Republican Jim Sensenbrenner.
Ryan said he believed the plan had the best chance for success of any that he's seen - with the goals of reducing the violence and giving the government more time to establish control.
"So that when we leave, and the insurgents come back - which I think they will - the Iraqis will be better positioned to defend their country," Ryan said.
"The good thing I see that's different is all our earlier attempts to secure the country were American-led ideas, and the government really had no ownership in it," he added. "This plan was designed by the (Iraqi) government, therefore you have Iraqi ownership of this security plan."
Two or three car bombs a day
Ryan said he decided to travel to Iraq to see firsthand whether the plan had any chance of success.
"I've got to say, the situation is pretty dire," he said. "The level of violence is as high as it's ever been. I probably heard two or three car bombs a day."
He said he saw smoke from a chlorine gas truck explosion that happened just four blocks away from the group. The members had to wear armor and traveled only by helicopter, to avoid attacks by improvised explosive devices.
The group stayed in Baghdad but traveled to different cities and bases, mostly in the central part of the country, Ryan said.
"I learned more in just a few days than I could have learned in two years' worth of committee hearings - that's for sure," he said. "It made it crystal clear that we made three colossal mistakes in the beginning of this operation."
Ryan said those mistakes were sending just one-third the number of troops as necessary, disbanding the Iraqi army, and the purging of members of Saddam's Baath party from government jobs.
"Anybody who knew how to do anything in Iraq - we said, 'You can't be a part of helping this government,'" he said of the latter move. "So anybody who knew how to run a government ministry, a power plant, a water treatment facility - they became persona non grata overnight."