What About Winning a Few U.S. Hearts and Minds?

The House voted last week -- with the Senate expected to follow suit this week -- to give President Bush what he wanted: $87 billion to pay for ongoing U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and for reconstruction aid that Pentagon planners hope will help win hearts and minds in the two Muslim nations. But the huge bill for military occupations that show no signs of ending anytime soon could cost Bush the hearts and minds of many taxpayers in the United States.

And skeptics like Rep. Silvestre Reyes, the down-to-earth Democratic congressman who represents El Paso, Texas, will help get that message across. He is part of a large group of Americans who instinctively rally to the support of American troops whenever they are sent to war. But that group is starting to wonder what became of the great victory U.S. troops achieved when Baghdad fell in April.

Because many of those troops are still in Iraq and Afghanistan, there was never much doubt the Pentagon's aid bill would be approved. That, however, did not stop some astute critics of the Iraq war -- and even some backers of White House policy -- from asking tough questions about the bill and trying to nibble away at it. One instance took place Sept. 25, when Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, testified before the House Armed Services Committee.

There they met up with Reyes, the chairman of the decidedly liberal Congressional Hispanic Caucus and a proud Vietnam veteran whose district includes the Army base at Ft. Bliss. His moderate politics pretty accurately reflect the views of many Mexican Americans in Texas and elsewhere in the Southwest -- a mix of liberal and conservative views, with a special pride in Latino contributions to the U.S. military.

Reyes displayed that unique political mix in lecturing Wolfowitz, one of the key intellectual architects of the decision to invade Iraq.

"As I look at how we're spending the reconstruction money," Reyes said, "I look here at $3.7 billion to expand access to safe drinking water and improved sanitation." He pointed out that rural areas of his district include many Mexican American colonias that "don't have clean drinking water and they don't have sanitation." Reyes also found $850 million in the bill to upgrade hospitals and build a pediatric hospital in Baghdad. "El Paso," he said, "does not have a pediatric hospital." And as for $470 million requested "to build houses, repair and rebuild government buildings, and repair and rebuild roads and bridges," Reyes noted that the wish list was "all stuff that we desperately need in my district and all along the border."

"So it is a tough sell," he concluded. "I will support our military, but things like this are tough on those members that have some same kinds of needs in our respective districts."

Neither Wolfowitz nor Bremer directly responded to Reyes' comments. They knew they didn't have to because, with U.S. troops still in Iraq, there was no chance Reyes or other key committee members would reject the aid request. After pushing for some reductions (that $3.7 billion for water quality projects is now $3.55 billion), Reyes voted to support the bill. What else could a patriotic Tejano do, with U.S. soldiers still facing danger?

Speaking of which, another noteworthy Iraq milestone was passed last week, although it didn't get nearly the attention Congress' vote did. The number of Americans killed by hostile action during the occupation surpassed the number of soldiers killed between the start of the war on March 20 and May 1, when Bush declared an end to active combat during his now notorious flyboy visit to the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln.

The Iraq occupation is indeed a tough sell. And it will only get tougher with each new American casualty.

Frank del Olmo is associate editor of The Times.

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