Kline says he sees 'amazing' progress in Iraq

(AP) Rep. John Kline, returning from his fifth trip to Iraq, said Tuesday he saw "amazing" progress in the security situation there, and a sense of normalcy returning among Iraqi people. Kline, R-Minn., traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan over the weekend as part of a bipartisan House Armed Services Committee trip led by Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii.

Kline, who has been a supporter of President Bush's Iraq policy, said he was particularly impressed with the improved security in the Anbar province capital of Ramadi.

"The security situation there is just truly amazing. Just amazing," he said in a telephone interview. Kline said the Marine battalion commander there told the lawmakers that violence is way down.

"One of the great advantages of going is you can look and get a sense of what the atmosphere is," Kline said. "People are going about their business, the shops are open, they're walking around the street."

Kline said the lawmakers were greeted by children who laughed, teased and asked for money. Adults smiled and gave the thumbs up.

"Just a sense of normalcy - people getting on with their lives," he said.

The take by Kline, a conservative Republican, was similar to one by the state's liberal Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison, who visited Ramadi in July. In that trip, Ellison noted that people were walking the streets of the city, going to the market, and he had commented on the "general level of respect and calm that I thought was good."

But these two lawmakers have opposite approaches in mind for Iraq, with Ellison calling for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, and Kline supporting the Bush administration's policy.

Kline, a retired Marine, said he thought the surge of U.S. troops helped, but wasn't the deciding factor.

"I don't think it would be fair to say that the surge is responsible for what happened in Ramadi," he said. "It just sort of reinforced it. It showed the sheiks and the Iraqis there that the Americans were committed. It helped tip it in our direction."

Kline said the surge was more than adding 30,000 troops.

"What we've done is change how we're working there," he said. "Now they're interwoven with, sharing the same building with the Iraqi security forces. And I think that has really made the difference."

Kline said he wasn't able to get out and talk to children in Baghdad, but that the situation there was much improved from his previous visit, in June of last year.

"It's much more like it was the first time I went, in October 2003," he said.

In Baghdad, the group got a briefing from Maj. Gen. Joseph Fil, a senior U.S. commander. According to Kline, Fil told the lawmakers that while security has improved with Iraqis turning away from al-Qaida, there are still neighborhoods where fighting remains intense.

"It's still very dangerous and al-Qaida has sort of dug in in some of the neighborhoods," Kline said, "and the Iraqi Army and Iraqi police and U.S. and coalition forces are still engaged in some very heavy, tough fighting."