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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Sen. Bob Bennett said Monday that he returned from a trip to Iraq with renewed confidence in the war's importance in fighting terrorism and continued assurance that troop morale remained high.
Bennett, along with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn, and Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., left Thursday and returned Sunday. The senators met L. Paul Bremer -- the top U.S. administrator in Iraq -- and interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi; toured the Abu Ghraib prison; sat in on briefings and visited a hospital.
"The most significant thing that hit me was the sense of optimism," said Bennett, who spoke to reporters Monday from Washington, D.C. "Virtually everywhere, there was a sense that the situation in Baghdad, and Iraq generally, was improving."
The senators donned flak jackets for helicopter rides and rode with military pilots whose planes had drawn fire months before.
Bennett said he was not concerned for his safety and left feeling that things were going fine in Iraq. He said he talked with an interrogator who said the abuse documented at Abu Ghraib wasn't sanctioned by top officials and wasn't effective in interrogations.
Bremer told the senators that inflation and unemployment were down in Iraq, and that the $18 billion appropriated by Congress for Iraqi reconstruction would be sufficient.
Bennett blamed the slowed Iraq reconstruction on Americans who protested the way building and infrastructure contracts were awarded.
"The delay that has been so frustrating in Iraq was caused by legal action taken in the United States against the Bush decision for sole-source contracts and the requirement that there be competitive bidding ... The Iraqi frustration for America's failure to fulfill its commitment on reconstruction was caused by American legal delays," Bennett said.
"Now, it's going forward."
Bennett also said that looking at a classified military map of troop installations in the region helped him understand why winning in Iraq was essential to defeating terrorism.
"Right smack in the middle is Iraq," he said. "When you see that visual demonstration of the war on terror spread throughout the entire region ... it becomes very dramatically obvious that you cannot fight that war without being in Iraq."
Former Attorney General Paul Van Dam, a Democrat vying for Bennett's seat in the November election, criticized Bennett for blaming Iraq for terrorism.
"There was no evidence of terrorism from that region before we went there," Van Dam said. "My view is that we've created that. People who are interested in that have come from other countries and those that dislike us have resorted to that.
"I have been disappointed and discouraged with our lack of preparedness for the aftermath of the war," he said.
Bennett spokeswoman Mary Jane Collipriest said the senators were commissioned by President Bush to visit Iraq to assess conditions. Originally, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle was set to go with Frist, but he canceled after his office couldn't confirm a meeting with Allawi.
Frist asked Ensign and Bennett to go in Daschle's place, she said.
Collipriest said the senators would likely present their findings to Bush in their next meeting.
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)