POLITICS: Corker Lays It On the Line About Iraq 

The GOP senator says “this summer” is crucial for the military effort in Iraq.

OAKLAND – It was in the suburbs and rural areas of West Tennessee that Bob Corker, who was run close in home-town Chattanooga, probably gained a decisive edge over Democratic opponent Harold Ford Jr. during the U.S. Senate election of 2006. Or so most post-election analysis indicated. .

And Oakland, a fast-growing municipality in Fayette County, where the freshman Republican senator held a town meeting on Monday, is both suburban enough and rural enough to qualify as an integral part of Corker’s constituent base.

Residents of Fayette County are also, as Corker made a point of noting Monday, second to none in the fervor of their patriotic feeling.

So when Corker, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, focused on Iraq in his remarks at the town meeting, it may safely be assumed that he was talking turkey, putting his true sentiments on the line.

One thing the senator made clear right away was his commitment to full financial and moral support to commanding general David Petraeus and the ongoing “surge” effort in Iraq, but Corker made clear that positive results were needed this summer, before the Senate takes up the issue of supplemental appropriations in September.

“We need to give General Petraeus the time he needs through this summer…to turn what has been a downward spiral…into an upward spiral for the people of Iraq,”

Corker said. He employed the phrase “through this summer” over and over as a frame for his – and the Senate’s – commitment to the current military effort.

At one point, an audience member wondered if media reports from Iraq, “which I tend to think is more liberal in the presentation of the information we get,” could be trusted.

Corker’s answer was careful and measured. General Petraeus had “tremendous concern” about prospects in Iraq, he said. The senator noted that he had discussed the war effort with Petraeus three times -- in Washington, during a time of “energy and enthusiasm” before the general undertook his present field duties, again during a visit by Corker to Iraq, and once more during a recent briefing by Petraeus on a return visit to Washington.

“And I will tell you, he is very concerned,” Corker repeated.

There had been progress made in outlying provinces, where tribesmen had signaled their exasperation with an Al Qaeda presence, Corker said, but the picture in Baghdad was far bleaker, both in terms of mounting military confrontations and increased bombings and from the standpoint of the Iraqi government’s own insufficient effort, both military and political.

”Iraqi culture just doesn’t move at the same pace that we do,” said Corker, noting that the country’s government had been slow to move toward political reconciliation of the three basic Iraqi populations – Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds.

“We’ve insisted on reforms, but there is tremendous hatred among the Iraqi people. These things are not happening yet,” Corker said.

“It’s a tough situation, and I know that, as you mention, the media paints it out to be a tough situation, but it actually is a tough situation. There are some successes that are taking place over in the hinterlands, if you will, that are away fro the urban area of Baghdad. I don’t think that’s exactly what you wanted to hear.”

The senator was asked after the meeting if he supported the efforts of the 13 Republican members of Congress who met with President Bush last week and cautioned the president to let General Petraeus, rather than himself or anyone else associated with the White House,serve as principal spokesperson on the war.

“I think that General Petraeus is the man on the ground…I really do think at this point in the war’s evolution, it’s so politicized, that General Petraeus is respected by Republicans and Democrats, and I think people view him as somebody they can trust….Politics are very thick right now, and he [Petraeus] is above politics, and I really do think that he’s the best possible spokesman.”

Asked about a possible presidential bid by former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson, Corker made it clear he would be supportive of a Thompson candidacy. “I think Fred is going to run. He’s a great communicator, and not just our country, but the world, needs a great communicator.”.

During the town meeting, Corker also emphasized his concerns about developing Tennessee’s bio-fuels industry as a partial solution to the nation’s energy needs and indicated his commitment to rethinking how health care is financed.

The visit to Oakland followed several earlier appearances by Corker in Memphis.

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