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Congressional group's leader denies that they were asked to leave Iraq

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 13, 2011 - WASHINGTON - Despite claims to the contrary by an Iraqi spokesman, the leader of a congressional delegation that included U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, denied Monday that they had been asked to leave that country and not return to Iraq.

"We were not officially told to leave the country before we left and were never told or warned not to come back," said the delegation's leader, U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., in a statement issued this weekend from Istanbul.

Rohrabacher was responding to reports by news organizations that Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh had said this weekend -- after the half dozen House members met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad -- that "we have informed the American embassy that these congressmen are not welcome in Iraq."

Two contentious issues that came up at the meeting were whether Iraq should repay the United States for some of its costs in helping rebuild the country's infrastructure and -- perhaps more sensitive for al-Maliki -- whether Iraq is adequately investigating clashes in April between Iraqi forces and Iranian exiles at Camp Ashraf during which 34 people were killed and more than 200 were wounded.

"It's unfortunate that this conflict [with Iraqi officials] arose while parties are genuinely trying to work together to get to the bottom of what happened at Camp Ashraf," Carnahan said in a statement Monday. Iraq has ordered the camp to be shut down by year's end, but the residents -- who oppose the Iranian government -- have refused to leave and to recognize Iraqi control over the camp.

Carnahan's spokesman told the Beacon that the congressional group did not change their agenda in Iraq and departed as planned for Kuwait on Friday night after a daylong visit to Baghdad. Rohrabacher is chairman, and Carnahan is the top Democrat, on the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on oversight and investigations.

"Chairman Rohrabacher and I work together on many issues, including the important oversight work that's been the focus of this delegation visit; however, we frequently have different approaches to issues," Carnahan said in the statement. "We need to work together in a bipartisan way to find out what happened [at Camp Ashraf], but the most important part of our mission in Iraq right now is ensuring a successful transition that leads to a stable Iraq. We can't lose sight of that goal."

The U.S. embassy in Baghdad issued a statement Saturday that put some distance between American diplomats and the congressional group. "Congressional visitors do not necessarily express the views of the U.S. administration or even a majority of Congress," said an embassy spokesman.

In his statement this weekend, a defiant Rohrabacher declined to apologize to the Iraqis -- and said his subcommittee planned to conduct its own inquiry into the violence at Camp Ashraf. "No apologies are necessary for suggesting the massacre of unarmed civilians by Iraqi troops is something that needs to be investigated," said the California congressman. He said the Iraqi government, as well as the U.S. embassy, had declined his request for delegation to visit the site.

In a phone call late Friday from Kuwait, Carnahan told reporters that among the "wide range of issues" the group covered with the Iraqi prime minister was "the killings at Camp Ashraf. And certainly there have been some very strong statements from the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Foreign Affairs Committee and from the [Obama] administration about that." He said the panel wants to "get to the bottom of how that happened and who was responsible."

The Iraqis also were reportedly irked by Rohrabacher's suggestion that they repay some of the U.S. expenses in Iraq. In fact, the AP quoted the head of the Iraqi parliament's foreign affairs committee as calling that suggestion "stupid," and adding that "we are the ones who should ask for compensation, and not them."

In his statement, Rohrabacher said, "I will not apologize for suggesting once Iraq becomes prosperous, it should consider repaying the United States for the hundreds of billions of dollars spent to liberate them from a tyrannical dictator and helping to establish a democratic government."

Read the Beacon's earlier story below:

WASHINGTON - During a whirlwind one-day stop in Iraq on Friday, U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan and a half dozen other lawmakers had what Carnahan called a "very frank" discussion with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad.

In that session, the delegation's leader -- U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif. -- reportedly asked Iraqi officials to consider eventually repaying the U.S. government for some of the "mega-dollars" that this country has spent in Iraq since overthrowing the government of dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Carnahan, D-St. Louis, said his questions to the prime minister focused on other topics, but he told reporters in a phone conversation from Kuwait late Friday that he would like to see some effort at repayments once the Iraqi economy is on a solid footing.

"I am disappointed because in the front end of the buildup to the war in Iraq there were some pretty grand assurances that, as the oil industry was rebuilt, there was going to be millions of dollars paid back to the U.S. for what we were doing to help liberate that country," Carnahan said. "But, of course, those [assurances] fell flat."

The St. Louis congressman added: "I think that's an important conversation to have, in terms of their ability either to directly repay or through important economic engagements with U.S. companies [and] buying our products."

According to a report by Agence France Presse (AFP), Rohrabacher told reporters at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that he went a bit further. "Once Iraq becomes a very rich and prosperous country... we would hope that some consideration be given to repaying the United States some of the mega-dollars that we have spent here in the last eight years," Rohrabacher was quoted as saying.

That opinion is unlikely to find much favor in Iraq, where many Iraqis consider the U.S. responsible for the destruction of the war. And, in fact, earlier this year, according to the AP, the Baghdad city government demanded the U.S. pay $1 billion for damage caused to the city by blast walls erected during the war.

A policy of repayment contrasts with recent statement by U.S. officials who had avoided such demands. Earlier this week, CIA director Leon Panetta -- who has been nominated to become the new secretary of Defense -- suggested that the U.S. should consider any Iraqi request for American troops to stay beyond their scheduled withdrawal at the end of this year. At present, about 47,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq.

Rohrabacher chairs the House Foreign Affairs oversight and investigations subcommittee, on which Carnahan is the ranking Democrat. It was Carnahan's second trip to Iraq, the first taking place in 2005. Before stopping in Iraq, the U.S. House delegation had also visited sites in India and the Philippines, staffers said.

Carnahan said the conversation with al-Maliki focused mainly on "the importance of this transition" as U.S. troops withdraw. "I specifically asked him about his feeling about the police and military training. He expressed confidence (in) their capacities . . . [and] in their ability to be ready for the transition." The congressman added: "This war in Iraq has been so costly and has gone on so long, this time of transition I think is very critical."

The Missouri congressman, who met with U.S. military officials, said many U.S. troops in the country now see "a glimmer of light at the end of a long tunnel. They felt like they were working to wind down the U.S. presence there, to [help] stand up the Iraqi government and institutions so they could come home."

"We've had a costly presence there and certainly invested a lot there. It's important for the country, the region and our own economic national security to have them succeed."

Carnahan told reporters that Congress needs to conduct thorough oversight into Iraq's transition, noting that inspectors' reports have identified billions of dollars "in waste or duplication" in various programs in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also said he hoped that Iraq would consider repaying some of the U.S. costs and also strengthening business ties.

"It's certainly my hope that there will be an opportunity for the Iraqi government to repay or to continue to do business with the U.S. in ways that help us out economically," Carnahan said. He added that Rohrabacher "did make that request" for eventual repayment. "We know that they are continuing to try to build up their economy and get their oil production back up to where it could be valuable."

Carnahan said there is a historical precedent for at least partial repayment. "Back in our own revolution, our fledgling democratic movement was financed largely by France, and specificially General Lafayette. Later, Congress made an appropriation to at least partially pay him back for helping to underwrite our own revolution. So there is certainly a precedent for that sort of thing happening."

"But obviously Iraq's going to have to get on a more stable footing before those conversations" can advance to reality.

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.

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