McCain Arrives in Iraq, Plans to Meet Maliki

Presidential Hopeful, on a Congressional Tour, Stays Largely Out of View

Sen. John McCain, the likely Republican presidential nominee, arrived in Baghdad on Sunday for a visit with Iraqi and U.S. diplomatic and military officials.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 17, 2008; Page A12

BAGHDAD, March 16 -- Sen. John McCain visited Iraq on Sunday as part of a congressional delegation on an international tour, a chance for the likely Republican presidential nominee to emphasize his support of the U.S. military effort in Iraq and his foreign policy experience.

Unlike a previous trip to Iraq, in which he was criticized for his optimistic pronouncements about progress and security, McCain's visit on Sunday was largely out of the public view. U.S. Embassy and military officials stressed that the visit was not a campaign event. McCain apparently did not travel with reporters or make press statements.

The visit included a briefing by senior U.S. military officials in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, according to a U.S. military official familiar with McCain's schedule. The city has emerged as one of the last major urban strongholds of the Sunni insurgency. McCain then flew to Haditha, the western Iraqi town where, in November 2005, U.S. Marines gunned down as many as 24 Iraqi civilians. He walked through a market.

McCain was scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, according to Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih. While Salih did not see McCain on Sunday, he said McCain's "message has been consistent in the past saying Iraqis have to take responsibility and deliver on political progress."

Salih said it was important for Iraqi politicians not to get involved in U.S. domestic politics but that his colleagues were "keenly aware of the debate in the United States." Most important, he said, was a "solid long-term partnership" with the United States and a commitment that the American government "continue to look at Iraq as an important mission that cannot be allowed to fail."

"Abandoning Iraq is not an option," he said.

McCain (R-Ariz.) is traveling with Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.). He was scheduled to meet other senior Iraqi leaders as well as U.S. diplomatic and military officials. The week-long trip will also take the delegation to Jordan, Israel, France and Britain.

In the early evening, McCain flew by helicopter from the U.S. military base near Baghdad's airport to the Green Zone, where he was whisked away by black SUVs for more meetings.

McCain is closely linked with the U.S. military buildup that started last year. He was an advocate of bringing in the additional 30,000 troops and sparked a controversy last April when he toured Baghdad's battered Shorja market with 100 American soldiers guarding him and spoke about the progress he saw and how safe it seemed. The American public was not getting the "full picture about what's happening," he said at the time. One of his colleagues, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), described the market, where repeated bombings had killed dozens of people, as "like a normal outdoor market in Indiana in the summertime."

McCain later said he misspoke during the market episode.

As violence dropped sharply in the latter half of 2007, McCain seemed to benefit from his early support of what is known as the troop surge. The buildup is often mentioned by Iraqi and U.S. military officials as one of the main reasons for the declining violence, along with a cease-fire by Shiite cleric and militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr and the development of U.S.-backed local Sunni armed groups to help fight the insurgents.

Some Iraqi officials said they believed it was too soon to judge what the American presidential candidates would do in Iraq.

"These statements are just for the campaign," said Omar Abdul Sattar, a Sunni parliament member.

Correspondent Sudarsan Raghavan contributed to this report.

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