MARY CLARE JALONICK Associated Press Writer WASHINGTON (AP)
Sen. Max Baucus is planning his first trip to Iraq next month as Congress prepares a new round of debate over the war. Baucus, D-Mont., told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the trip with other moderates, Sens. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., Ken Salazar, D-Colo., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, will investigate the situation there. Congress is awaiting a pivotal assessment by the top U.S. commander, Gen. David Petraeus, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker amid fierce debate over whether to begin withdrawing troops. The senators' trip is expected to be within weeks of the report's release in September. Baucus has said he regrets his vote to authorize force in 2002. Last year, his nephew, Phillip E. Baucus, was killed while serving with the Marines in Iraq. "It was a mistake," he said Wednesday, adding he believes President Bush would have gone ahead with the war without congressional approval. Baucus said he isn't sure whether the 2002 vote will affect his upcoming Senate race. He is up for re-election next year. "I don't know," he said. "I just do the best I can, doing what I believe in." Petraeus predicted Wednesday that the U. S. footprint in Iraq would have to be "a good bit smaller" by next summer, but cautioned against a quick or significant U.S. withdrawal that could surrender "the gains we have fought so hard to achieve." Baucus had planned a trip to the wartorn country last winter but had to cancel when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called for the Senate to debate the conflict.