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Pawlenty sees improved Iraq

From left are Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, South Dakota Gov. Michael Rounds, Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Gen. McKinley, chief of the National Guard Bureau, as the governors visit the Al Faw Palace in Baghdad, Iraq. (Submitted photo courtesy of Gov. Tim Pawlenty's office)

ST. PAUL -- Conditions in Iraq are improving, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said Wednesday during an unannounced visit.

"There is a hopeful sense here, a more stable sense here than some of my recent previous trips," the governor said.

Military leaders invited Pawlenty, in Iraq for the fifth time, and four other governors to visit Iraq. Their trip is to continue, but Pawlenty said he was not allowed to reveal future stops.

South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds, also on the trip, said that he thinks Iraqis and their American allies are winning the war, building a new government and rebuilding their country after years of fighting.

"It is still a war zone, there's no question about that," said Rounds, who toured Iraq once before.

He said he sees improvement since the last time he was in the country, with Iraqis striving to "form a government in a timely fashion."

"They may well become a very good ally of the American people in the future," Rounds said.

Pawlenty, a potential 2012 Republican presidential candidate, would not give Democratic President Barack Obama credit for improvements in Iraq.

The Obama administration "has been largely pursuing a footprint and a blueprint largely set out at the end of the Bush administration," he said.

Pawlenty said in a conference call with reporters that improving conditions in the war-torn country can be attributed to a troop surge near the end of the George W. Bush presidency and the new civilian government that is forming.

"As that is happening, the violence level has been fairly stable ... even with this uncertainty with this civilian government formation," he said.

However, he added, "Iraq still has a long ways to go" and the United States needs to continue helping the government to be stable.

Pawlenty said he was not allowed to say where he was in Iraq, where he would go from there or how long he will be gone, but promised to talk to reporters via satellite or telephone in the next few days. He said he had been in Baghdad and some bases near there.

Before leaving Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Pawlenty toured the Pentagon and Walter Reed Army Hospital, where he met an Apple Valley soldier hurt in Afghanistan.

In Iraq, Pawlenty said that he is trying to thank as many soldiers as possible for their work. "We are trying to look them in the eye and say we are so proud of them."

It is harsh there, Rounds said. On Wednesday, it was 112 degrees, with a sandstorm blowing at 15 to 18 knots.

"It's miserable outside," Rounds said.

A Minneapolis band, "The New Congress," entertained troops after the sandstorm grounded the band's flight.

Minnesota troop numbers are down to a few hundred in Iraq, although 2,700 National Guard personnel are on alert and expect to be sent there in the next two years. Since 2003, more than 20,000 Minnesota National Guard soldiers and airmen have been deployed to the Middle East.

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co. Reporter Tom Lawrence contributed to this story.

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.