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McCain touts crackdown during Baghdad visit

After a trip to a Baghdad market, Sen. John McCain insisted Sunday that a U.S.-Iraqi security crackdown in the capital was working. The U.S. military later reported six soldiers were killed in roadside bombings southwest of Baghdad.
/ Source: The Associated Press

After a heavily guarded trip to a Baghdad market, Sen. John McCain insisted Sunday that a U.S.-Iraqi security crackdown in the capital was working and said Americans lacked a “full picture” of the progress. The U.S. military later reported six soldiers were killed in roadside bombings southwest of Baghdad.

Two of the U.S. soldiers were killed Saturday and four others died Sunday in what appeared to be coordinated attacks, the military said. The four soldiers died as they were responding to the first explosion which killed two, indicating the attacks took place in the last minutes of Saturday and shortly after midnight on Sunday.

McCain, a Republican presidential hopeful, acknowledged a difficult task lies ahead in Iraq, but criticized the media for not giving Americans enough information about the recent drop in execution-style sectarian killings, the establishment of security posts throughout the city and Sunni tribal efforts against al-Qaida in the western Anbar province.

Very cautious optimism’
“These and other indicators are reason for cautious, very cautious optimism about the effects of the new strategy,” said McCain, who was leading a Republican congressional delegation to Iraq that included Sen. Lindsey Graham.

Members of the delegation spoke at a Green Zone news conference after they rode from Baghdad’s airport in armored vehicles and under heavy guard to visit the city’s largest market. They said the trips were proof that security was improving in the capital. Prominent visitors normally make the trip from the airport to the city center by helicopter.

The congressmen, who wore body armor during their hourlong shopping excursion, said they were impressed with the resilience and warmth of the Iraqi people, some of whom would not take money for their souvenirs. They were accompanied by the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus.

While the capital has seen a recent dip in violence as extra U.S. and Iraqi troops have flooded the streets, an Iraqi military spokesman said that militants fleeing the crackdown have made areas outside the capital “breeding grounds for violence,” spreading deadly bombings and sectarian attacks to areas once relatively untouched.

Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, the spokesman, promised the recent attacks would not derail the neighborhood sweeps that began in Baghdad on Feb. 14. “The terrorist elements are backed into a corner and we are going to continue to carry out these operations,” he said.

More than 600 Iraqis have been killed in sectarian violence since March 25, most in a series of high-profile suicide bombings. Among them were at least 152 people killed in a suicide truck bombing in Tal Afar — the deadliest single strike since the war began four years ago. Shiites, including police, went on a revenge shooting rampage afterward, killing at least 45 Sunni men.

New attacks
In the latest Iraqi violence, a bomb hit a popular market in Tuz Khormato, 130 miles north of Baghdad on Sunday, killing three people and wounding four. It was the second attack in the city in as many days. Two Iraqis seeking work were killed in a car bombing on Saturday.

A suicide car bomber in a truck targeted an Iraqi army building in the northern city of Mosul, killing two civilians and wounding 22 people, including 15 soldiers, police spokesman Brig. Gen. Abdul-Karim al-Jibouri said.

Two top Sunni officials — lawmaker Omar Abdul-Sattar and Omar al-Jubouri, an aide to Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi — escaped an assassination attempt when a roadside bomb struck their convoy as it passed through one of Baghdad’s most restive neighborhoods — the latest in a series of attacks by suspected Sunni insurgents against fellow Sunnis who have joined the political process.

Militants at an illegal checkpoint abducted 11 Shiite construction workers near Khalis, north of Baghdad in volatile Diyala province. Three women in the group were later freed. Shiite militias, Sunni insurgents and U.S. and Iraqi forces have been battling for weeks in the province.

Suicide vests found in Green Zone
Separately, U.S. military spokesman Rear Adm. Mark Fox said two suicide vests were found unexploded Saturday in the Green Zone, less than a week after a rocket attack killed two Americans in the vast central Baghdad district where the U.S. and British embassies and key offices of the Iraqi government are located.

With U.S. voters increasingly impatient with the conduct of the war and the American death toll nearing 3,250, Democrats in the House and Senate have pushed through funding bills with timetables for withdrawing U.S. forces. The measures need to be reconciled before they are sent to President Bush, who has promised a veto.

Graham said setting a deadline would be a “huge mistake” and Bush would be right to use his veto because the security plan — to which Bush has pledged 30,000 extra American troops — was working.

“We paid a heavy price, the Iraqis and the United States, for letting things get out of control, for not having enough people on the ground early on. But what we’re doing today is different,” said Graham, a South Carolina Republican. “If you set a deadline now, it will undercut everything positive that’s going on.”

McCain, R-Ariz., was combative during the news conference, refusing to respond to a question about whether the U.S. had plans to attack Iran. He also replied testily to a question about remarks he had made in the United States last week that it was safe to walk some Baghdad streets.

“Things are better and there are encouraging signs. I’ve been here ... many times over the years. Never have I been able to drive from the airport, never have I been able go out into the city as I was today,” he said.

‘Long, difficult struggle’
“I’m not saying ’mission accomplished,’ ’last throes,’ ’dead-enders’ or any of that. It’s long and it’s hard and it’s very, very difficult,” he said. “I believe that the signs are encouraging, but please don’t interpret one comment of mine in any way to indicate that this isn’t a long, difficult struggle that we’re in with lots more car bombings, lots more of the terrorist acts that have taken place.”

The delegation, which also included Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., and Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., toured the vast Shorja market, which was been hit by several recent bombings, including one in February that killed 137 people.

Also Sunday, 20 bullet-riddled bodies were found, most in Baghdad, apparent victims of so-called sectarian death squads that are believed to be run by Shiite militias. The number was low compared to the average of 50 bodies per day that were turning up before the security crackdown.