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Soldiers with the 34th Military Police Company converse Sunday with Gov. Tim Pawlenty, center, in a dining facility at Contingency Operating Base in Basra, Iraq. Three soldiers from the Stillwater-based National Guard unit were killed in an attack Thursday. Photo by Army Sgt. Joe Roos/Minn. State Capitol Bureau

Pawlenty, in Iraq, meets with comrades of three slain Minn. soldiers

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News Willmar,Minnesota 56201 http://www.wctrib.com/sites/default/files/styles/square_300/public/fieldimages/1/1130/pawlentyiraq.jpg?itok=LzVhvQ7i
West Central Tribune
Pawlenty, in Iraq, meets with comrades of three slain Minn. soldiers
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

ST. PAUL -- If Iran was behind the deaths of three Minnesota National Guard soldiers, already rocky relations with the United States could become worse, Gov. Tim Pawlenty said Sunday from the Middle East.

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An Iraqi police official says his department arrested a man with Iranian connections in the Thursday attack that killed Spc. Daniel P. Drevnick, 22, of Woodbury, Spc. James Wertish, 20, of Olivia and Spc. Carlos E. Wilcox IV, 27, of Cottage Grove. A fourth soldier, whom the military has not identified, was injured in the attack.

"If the evidence continues to point in that direction, that is going to make an already complicated relationship with Iran even more problematic," Pawlenty said in a conference call with Minnesota reporters as he ended an unannounced two-day Iraqi visit planned months ago.

Pawlenty would not give details about the attack on the Basra, Iraq, base, citing military officials' request that he be silent on the topic.

The military said the three were killed at 9:15 p.m. Iraqi time Thursday. Reports from Iraq indicate a rocket killed the Minnesotans assigned to the Stillwater-based military police unit.

"We were just a handful of miles from the Iranian boarder," Pawlenty said Sunday from Kuwait.

Pawlenty's Iraqi trip was supposed to be about telling soldiers that Minnesota supports them. But it turned into a sad occasion after the deaths were reported.

Sgt. Joe Roos of the National Guard reported that Pawlenty cut short his planned opening statement when he visited the Basra base.

"Normally, at these town hall meetings, we talk about a lot of stuff," Pawlenty said, "from the GI Bill to the Minnesota Vikings. But I want to limit my comments today to letting you know that I'm just so very sorry."

When he met with the military police company, there was one pressing question, Roos reported: The soldier was Staff Sgt. Blake Hayden from Woodbury, Minn., squad leader for the military police company's quick reaction force and the direct supervisor of Drevnick, Wertish and Wilcox.

"'Sir, are you going to be able to be at the funerals?'

"The governor did not mince words with his response.

"'Yes.'"

Talking to reporters, the subdued Pawlenty said the late soldiers' colleagues praised the trio as among the best people -- not just soldiers -- they had known.

The governor also sent a message to the soldiers' families: "We are thankful for their sons and what they represented, the values they represented and their service to their country."

Pawlenty said the state will do what it can to help families through their time of grief.

While overall violence is down from what was common during his 2006 and 2007 Iraqi visits, Pawlenty said the deaths show a danger remains.

More than 1,000 Minnesota Guard troops are in Iraq, with the Rosemount-based 34th "Red Bulls" Infantry Division. The Red Bulls are in charge of both National Guard and active Army troops in half of Iraq. The Stillwater military police unit is part of the Red Bulls.

Pawlenty said this is the first time since World War II that a Guard unit has shouldered such command responsibility. The Red Bulls run an operation of 15,000 troops.

While in Iraq with four other governors, Pawlenty met with military and American civilian leaders including Christopher Hill, U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

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Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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