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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Congressman Brian Baird is a Democrat from Washington state who voted against authorizing the Iraq invasion back in 2002. This past May, he voted in favor of a Democratic plan requiring that U.S. combat troops be brought home from Iraq next year. But Congressman Baird has changed his mind on that after his recent trip to Iraq. He now says U.S. troops must stay in Iraq longer. And he says a precipitous withdrawal could have catastrophic results for Iraq and the region.

Congressman Baird, welcome to the program.

Representative BRIAN BAIRD (Democrat, Washington): Great to be with you, Melissa.

BLOCK: What was it that you heard on this recent trip that made you change your mind?

Rep. BAIRD: First of all, I think it's important to realize that we are making progress. There are areas like al-Anbar province, where formerly, it was tremendously dangerous. It still is dangerous, but much less so than before. And that's good news. Secondly, leaders from throughout the region have said to me, look, you folks may think you can walk away from this, but we can't. We live in the neighborhood. And if this thing comes apart, it will be catastrophic not only for Iraq itself, but for surrounding nations. So, I believe we have a moral responsibility to help the Iraqi people, and we have a strategic interest in making sure this mission succeeds. And we are, finally, at long last, seeing some positive results.

BLOCK: When you say we're seeing positive results, what convinces you of that?

Rep. BAIRD: Well, when you meet with General Petraeus or Ambassador Crocker, they have, I think, a very frank assessment that there are still a number of problems, but real tangible evidence of gains both militarily and economically. But you also - when you meet folks out in the field, our soldiers and their commanders, I spoke with a colonel who said, look, congressman, we used to have incoming mortars and rockets on a daily basis, and we used to - every time we went out our perimeter, we get hit. And now, we're relatively secure, and village leaders now embrace us in public and help us bring in al-Qaida. So that's real gain.

Now, there's no question that the political situation is still a challenge. But it's my belief that actually a discussion of premature withdrawal makes it more difficult for the political situation to resolve constructively.

BLOCK: Do you figure that you may have heard a very different version, a different story from other commanders, other soldiers had you been to other parts of the country?

Rep. BAIRD: Well, it's always important to recognize. And I think General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker and other commanders who met with General Odierno will say that, look, there are some areas that are more secured than others. But as we are able to secure one area, and as the Iraqi soldiers and police are able to move in and take over the mission, our troops have been performing, then our soldiers can go into other areas and help break those more under control.

I don't want in any way to say that this is a rosy scenario. So, it will be difficult. Tragically, we will lose more lives. I still believe the invasion itself was a horrific mistake, but once we're there, we have to do what we can to try to make the best of this, and I think we're making progress.

BLOCK: I mentioned that you voted with your fellow Democrats just a couple of months ago to bring troops home next year. What time frame is acceptable to you now, or is any timetable acceptable to you now?

Rep. BAIRD: I think most people recognize that we're going to have to begin some withdrawals some time early next year because simply our equipment and our soldiers are wearing out. So we can't continue the current troop levels indefinitely. But I think six to eight months more can make a very important difference in the ability of the Iraqi government to resolve some of its difficulties, our ability to train police and military forces, and for the economy to get a little better under control.

BLOCK: Congressman Baird, it seems that your position on this, your new position, would be putting you at odds with that of most of your constituents back home in Washington.

Rep. BAIRD: Well, you know, we get some angry phone calls and different interpretations. But I would just say to people who are upset, if you could take the time that I have taken over the last number of months to meet with, not only the Iraqi leaders on all sides but our military troops on the ground, their leaders, our ambassadors, leaders from throughout the region, I think you'd have a different impression - I certainly do. And my hope would be people would say someone who's been there on the ground several times now, met with people throughout the region, may have a different insight than just someone who's reading about it second or third hand in the media.

BLOCK: Congressman Baird, thanks very much.

Rep. BAIRD: It's my pleasure. Thank you.

BLOCK: That's Congressman Brian Baird, a Democrat from Washington. He returned last week from his second trip to Iraq.

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