WASHINGTON – Bucking protests from the U.S. military and the State Department, Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn., crossed over the Kuwait border into Iraq Wednesday and complained that humanitarian aid isn't getting to the Iraqi people fast enough.
Shays, the first member of Congress to get into the war-torn country, traveled across the border with a convoy of aid workers from the Connecticut-based charity Save the Children. But other U.S. lawmakers meeting with military leaders in Kuwait were told they could not go, said Shays in a phone call from Kuwait.
Aid organizations are frustrated, he said, because they are being curtailed by the military because of security concerns, and their access to the needy residents of Iraq has been limited to just one community, Umm Qasr.
"When I get back I am going to have hearings on how we are engaging the (aid organizations)," said Shays, who is vice chairman of the House Government Reform Committee. "Danger is part of their job, they know how to deal with it, and they are ready and willing to do it. I think they need to be engaged a bit more."
Shays spent most of the day in Umm Qasr, a small seaport community on the Persian Gulf. It is the only Iraqi town open to humanitarian groups.
Save the Children President Charles MacCormack said workers are desperately anxious to get to work.
"We have every reason to believe that children and families are facing very tough times," he said. "I can't speak for the military people, they have a job to do and they don't want to create any unnecessary risks. But if journalists are able to go in, why not the humanitarians?"
Save the Children workers have been going into Iraq for about 10 days and are concentrating on getting propane cooking fuel to residents in Umm Qasr. They are hoping to send representatives to Basra on Saturday.
Military and government leaders were working on several fronts Wednesday to get aid to the people of Iraq. A U.S. military plane was flying thousands of meal packets into northern Iraq, the Jordan government sent 11 trucks of medical supplies, and the World Food Program donated 50 truckloads of flour.
A key goal is restoring the power grid and water system, which could take weeks, according to coalition officials. Meanwhile, Congress allocated $2.5 billion for humanitarian aid and rebuilding Iraq.
Shays traveled to Kuwait with a congressional delegation and later attended briefings with war commander Gen. Tommy Franks and other defense officials. He said he was disappointed the U.S. military and the State Department did not want him to go into the battle-scarred country.
"I had to use the Save the Children's network to get in. And (the State Department) led me to believe I was doing something that they didn't want me to do," he said. "I saw a lot of poverty, I saw a lot of bad living conditions ... I just wish other members of Congress had seen what I got to see."