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U.S. Senator Martinez Sees 'Time To Consolidate Gains' In Iraq --> U.S. Senator Mel Martinez at RFE/RL (RFE/RL) PRAGUE -- Senator Mel Martinez (Republican, Florida) is a former secretary of housing and urban development under President George W. Bush. He serves on the Armed Services Committee, the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee, and the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, as well as the Senate’s Special Committee on Aging. During a visit to RFE/RL's Prague headquarters, Senator Martinez spoke with RFE/RL about the "surge" of U.S. troops in Iraq, and the U.S. military's future role there.

RFE/RL: The troop surge has been seen in the United States as an effective strategy. What people want to know is: if the draw-down expected this year puts the gains made in jeopardy, will the United States be prepared to reverse course and maintain the present troop level to cement these gains and make them permanent?

Senator Mel Martinez: I had the privilege of visiting Iraq in August. When I was there, it was clear to me that the surge was making a difference, so the success we see now only confirms what I was able to see myself on the ground as early as last August. It is now undeniable that the surge has had a very important effect. And the effect has been a combination of the actions of United States troops but also very courageous actions of so many Iraqis, Iraqi civilians. Iraqis who have taken it upon see violence put aside and the opportunity for a better life [and] come forward.

I remember meeting Iraqis who wanted their children to go to school and have peace as they went to school; that is a universal desire. Every father -- I am a father and I am also a grandfather -- has the wish that their children be educated [and] move in the world in a peaceful way. In terms of that question that you asked me, I think the only thing that would prevent the United States from continuing the commitment would be if we lost the hope that the Iraqi people and their governmental representatives were willing to come together to reach the types of political reconciliation necessary to put aside sectarianism and live together as a peaceful and united country.

President Bush will not change in his commitment, and I really believe that as long as there is a sign of hope and progress toward a constructive future, the United States' commitment will continue to be there. I think better days are ahead and difficult days are past, and I think now it is time to consolidate the gains from the hard work of Iraqi people coming together and rejecting violence, rejecting Al-Qaeda. The hard work of American forces working together can now be consolidated [as] people put aside their sectarian instincts and move together to have a peaceful country.

RFE/RL: Iraq plans to begin negotiations with the United States this year to replace the UN mandate for the Multinational Force with a new arrangement. How do you perceive the long-term status of the U.S. presence in Iraq?

Martinez: First of all, I think it is very important to know that the Iraqi people know that the United States has no ambitions for conquest. The United States does not wish to occupy Iraqi; the United States only wishes to be in a partnership with Iraq to the extent that the Iraqi people want our involvement and our partnership. But assuming that that is the case, I think that the United States would be willing to make with Iraq the same type of arrangements that it has with many other democratic and independent countries, where they discuss in a free environment the arrangements by which we will cooperate with one another.

If invited, and if they will it, then [Iraq will have] the participation of the United States forces over a long period of time to provide a backup and...perhaps the necessary stability and military presence that could ensure that the violence in the past remains in the past, and does not return in the future. But this would be an arrangement in conjunction with and in partnership with our Iraqi friends. [It] would not be imposed by the United States; the United States does not have a habit of conquering other countries. The United States occupied many countries in Europe after World War II, France in particular, Germany as well. Those countries today are independent and vibrant. The United States helped pacify them, helped to develop an economic stability that has enabled these countries to flourish. What better example is there than Japan?