U.S. Rep. Brian Baird's sudden support for continuing the U.S. troop escalation in Iraq has created havoc in Congress, where members on...

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WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Brian Baird’s sudden support for continuing the U.S. troop escalation in Iraq has created havoc in Congress, where members on both sides of the aisle await a crucial report on the Iraqi government’s progress.

Baird’s statements that the troop “surge” is working and should be given more time are at odds with the rest of the state’s congressional Democrats, who oppose the war and advocate a withdrawal.

Republican leaders have played up the remarks by Baird, D-Vancouver, who represents the 3rd Congressional District, while Democrats have downplayed his statements behind the scenes while not publicly denouncing him.

Reps. Adam Smith, D-Tacoma, and Jay Inslee, D-Bainbridge Island, both said they strongly disagree with Baird’s new assessment. But they were careful to say they respect Baird’s position.

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“Brian’s conclusions are wrong,” Smith said. “I don’t think we’ve made anywhere near the progress in achieving stability” in Iraq’s political landscape.

The sectarian violence is “primarily subsiding because a lot of the ethnic cleansing has been completed,” Smith said. “The longer it takes to agree on redeployment, the longer it will take to get out.”

Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, who is normally talkative, declined to comment on Baird. Reps. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle, and Rick Larsen, D-Lake Stevens, were traveling abroad and could not be reached.

The Government Accountability Office is completing a report, ordered by Congress, on whether Iraq’s leaders have met certain benchmarks during the troop escalation.

Auditors’ report

The Associated Press reported Wednesday that auditors determined the Iraqi government has failed to meet the vast majority of political and military goals laid out by lawmakers to assess President Bush’s war strategy.

Baird, who voted against the Iraq war in 2002 and supported a Democratic plan in March to bring combat troops home next year, changed his mind about the troop escalation after a mid-August visit to Iraq.

He said he met with leaders from several Iraqi groups there, adding: “I feel I have pretty strong first-hand knowledge of the situation there.”

Baird cited the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) released this month as one reason he thinks it is wrong to call for redeployment to begin in the next six months. The NIE, he said, warns that U.S. threats to leave will embolden local chieftains and create even more instability.

But Inslee cited the NIE’s concerns that the Iraq situation remains “precarious.”

“We are buying off sheiks and creating power centers” to temporarily curtail violence, Inslee said. “Responsible redeployment is the only option.”

He called administration statements about growing unity in Iraq “smoke.”

Baird said he would be willing to support a tax increase to continue operations in Iraq, in light of recent news reports that the White House may ask for another $50 billion for the war.

“Yes, we’re going to need some more money,” he said.

He also acknowledged that Republicans are using his statements, but said, “I think my interpretation is worth hearing.”

Republican Minority Leader John Boehner, of Ohio, issued a statement touting Baird on Aug. 24, asking when other Democrats will “finally listen to the generals by acknowledging the progress of our troops?” The conservative National Review also embraced Baird’s comments.

Democrats responded by pointing to statements by Republican Sen. John Warner, of Virginia, that he now favors redeployment of troops sooner rather than later.

“A senior senator trumps a junior congressman,” said Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense who opposes the escalation.

“It’s obviously a dilemma for Democrats,” said Norman Ornstein, a longtime political analyst in D.C.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, of California, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, want to produce a veto-proof bill supporting withdrawal of U.S. forces sometime after Congress returns next week.

“Risky thing”

However, Ornstein, who has worked closely with Baird on some issues, said, “It’s a courageous and risky thing for him to do this.”

Baird traveled to Iraq with a few other members of Congress. The New York Times noted that the group’s tour included a gourmet meal and power-point presentations at the U.S. ambassador’s home.

But Ornstein said Baird wouldn’t be swayed by a nice dinner. “Brian won’t buy into a wholly distorted picture of things,” he said.

“We didn’t just get a dog and pony show,” Baird said. “I think I have a responsibility to say where I stand.”

MoveOn.org, a liberal political-action group, announced Wednesday that it will air TV ads in Baird’s district starting today urging him to support the troops by bringing them home.

Alicia Mundy: 202-662-7457 or amundy@seattletimes.com

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