Despite protests from both the U.S. military and State Department, Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., crossed over the Kuwait border into Iraq Wednesday and said he would seek hearings by the House Government Reform Committee over complaints that humanitarian aid is not getting to the Iraqi people fast enough.
Shays became the first member of Congress to get into Iraq when he crossed the border with a convoy of aid workers from the Connecticut-based charity Save the Children. "When I get back I am going to have hearings on how we are engaging the [aid organizations]," Shays said. "Danger is part of their job, they know how to deal with it, and they are ready and willing to do it. I think they need to be engaged a bit more."
Shays spent most of the day in Umm Qasr, a small seaport community on the Persian Gulf that remains the only Iraqi town open to humanitarian groups. Military and government leaders were working on several fronts Wednesday to get aid to the Iraq population. A U.S. military plane was flying thousands of meal packets into northern Iraq, the Jordanian government sent 11 trucks of medical supplies, and the World Food Program donated 50 truckloads of flour.
Shays traveled to Kuwait with a congressional delegation and later attended briefings with commanding Gen. Tommy Franks and other defense officials. He said he was disappointed the U.S. military and the State Department did not want him to go into the battle-scarred country.
"I had to use the Save the Children's network to get in. And [the State Department] led me to believe I was doing something that they didn't want me to do," he said. "I saw a lot of poverty, I saw a lot of bad living conditions ... I just wish other members of Congress had seen what I got to see."
Shays' 10-day Middle East tour will take him to Jordan, Israel and the West Bank, where he plans to meet with Palestinian business leaders, clergy and civil rights advocates.
Meanwhile, the State Department has asked other House members of the delegation, Reps. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., and Darrell Issa, R-Calif., to meet with Syrian President Bashar Assad, the Charleston Daily Mail reported. "They want us to try to gauge his temperature," Rahall said.
They are slated to meet with Palestinian and Israeli leaders and will travel to Syria this weekend. Rahall, who met with the Syrian leader a year and a half ago, said Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage suggested the meeting. Rahall, who is of Lebanese descent, will also meet with new Palestinian Prime Minister Abu Mazen Thursday.