On his second visit to the Middle East this year, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. said he's offering thanks to Utah troops but expressing concern to foreign leaders about the lack of progress in Iraq.
During an overnight visit to Baghdad, Huntsman said he and the governors of New York, New Jersey and Oregon told an Iraq deputy prime minister that Americans are beginning "to lose focus of what success means and what our ultimate goals are" in Iraq.
That's true even in Utah, the governor said, despite the state's strong support for President Bush and his efforts against terrorism and with what's now being labeled by some as a civil war in Iraq.
"I think anyone watching the evening news and reading the papers would have to be somewhat concerned about the level of progress and the willingness on the part of the Iraqi government to accept more responsibility," Huntsman said.
The four governors are in the Middle East at the invitation of the U.S. Defense Department and will travel to Afghanistan before returning this weekend. Huntsman said they have already visited troops in Kuwait and spent Tuesday night in Baghdad.
He called the loss of Utah National Guard 2nd Lt. Scott B. Lundell in Afghanistan "a real tragedy" and said he'll offer his condolences to members of Lundell's I-Corps Artillery unit, which includes more than 100 Utahns. Lundell, 35, was killed Saturday during a firefight.
Huntsman said he sat down with members of the Utah National Guard's 2-211th Aviation Battalion on Wednesday morning. "They wanted to talk about the home front, the Jazz, the BYU-Utah game," he said. "They're thinking about home."
The governor said the "situation has deteriorated" in Baghdad since he was there in March as part of a delegation of governors and members of Congress to the region led by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
"It's a very disturbing turn of events," Huntsman said. Although a government is now in place, "while making the transition, they seem to be caught in a crossfire of sectarian angst and violent actions on the part of rebel groups."
Still, he stopped short of saying the country is in the grips of a civil war, even though that term is being increasingly used to describe the violent conflict between various factions.
"I've asked the best minds I could find whether they're officially at the point of civil war or not, and even the best minds disagree," the governor said. "But one thing for sure is that it's a dangerous environment and that will continue to escalate in the weeks ahead."
Huntsman said he had intended to fly to Turkey with members of the Air National Guard and join them for training missions but changed those plans when the Defense Department invited him to join other governors on this trip.
As commanders in chief of many of the troops being deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the Middle East, Huntsman said it's important for governors to understand first-hand what's happening on the front lines.
"We send men and women out to serve, and we need to understand what we're sending them into," the governor said. He described the message he's bringing to Utah troops as a simple one "appreciation for what they're doing under very difficult circumstances."
Currently, about 440 Utah Air and Army National Guard members are stationed around the globe and in the United States in support of either Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) or Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), which covers Afghanistan, the Philippines and several other countries, according to Guard spokesman Maj. Hank McIntire.
The Utah units now deployed overseas include I-Corps Artillery, 19th Special Forces, 2-211th Aviation's Alpha Company and the 300th Military Intelligence Brigade's 141st and 142nd battalions.Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, more than 5,000 Utah Guard members have served overseas, with more than 4,000 who served in Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan and other regions.