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Iraqi government shortens Baghdad curfew

US Senator John McCain with General Petraeus
Gen. David Petraeus, left, and Sen. John McCain, second from left, visit the Shorga marketplace in Bagdad on Sunday.Sgt Matthew Roe 10Th Public Affa / EPA
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Iraqi government announced plans Tuesday to shorten the curfew in the capital by two hours, saying security had improved enough to let residents stay on the streets until 10 p.m.

Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, the spokesman for the Baghdad security operation, said the curfew had been shortened "because the security situation has improved and people needed more time to go shopping."

Previously, Iraqis in Baghdad were forced indoors between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m.

Earlier Tuesday, Iraqis in the capital said that Sen. John McCain's account of a heavily guarded visit to a central market did not represent the current reality in Baghdad, with one calling it "propaganda."

Jaafar Moussa Thamir, a 42-year-old who sells electrical appliances at the Shorja market that the Republican congressmen visited on Sunday, said the delegation greeted some fellow vendors with Arabic phrases but he was not impressed.

"They were just making fun of us and paid this visit just for their own interests," he said. "Do they think that when they come and speak few Arabic words in a very bad manner it will make us love them? This country and its society have been destroyed because of them and I hope that they realized that during this visit."

Thamir said "about 150 U.S. soldiers and 20 Humvees" accompanied the delegation.

McCain: ‘Cautiously optimistic’
McCain, a Republican presidential hopeful who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, said he was "cautiously optimistic" after riding with other members of a Republican congressional delegation from Baghdad's airport Sunday in armored vehicles under heavy guard to visit Shorja.

The market has been hit by bombings including a February attack that killed 137 people. The delegation said the trips were proof that security was improving in the capital.

McCain acknowledged a difficult task lies ahead in Iraq, but he insisted a U.S.-Iraqi security plan was working citing a 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.

"These and other indicators are reason for cautious, very cautious optimism about the effects of the new strategy," the Arizona senator said.

Body armor on, helmets off
The congressmen, who wore body armor during their hourlong shopping excursion at the Shorja market, said they were touched by the resilience and warmth of the Iraqi people, some of whom would not take money for their souvenirs.

The delegation was accompanied by the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, and followed his lead in taking off their helmets as they bought souvenirs and drank tea.

"I didn't care about him, I even turned my eyes away," Thamir said. "We are being killed by the dozens everyday because of them. What were they trying to tell us? They are just pretenders."

Karim Abdullah, a 37-year-old textile merchant, said the congressmen were kept under tight security and accompanied by dozens of U.S. troops.

"They were laughing and talking to people as if there was nothing going on in this country or at least they were pretending that they were tourists and were visiting the city's old market and buying souvenirs," he said. "To achieve this, they sealed off the area, put themselves in flak jackets and walked in the middle of tens of armed American soldiers."

‘Better than Iraqi officials’
But Abdullah applauded the congressmen for venturing out of the heavily guarded Green Zone, which houses the U.S. and British embassies as well as Iraqi government offices.

"Although these U.S. officials were using this visit for their propaganda to tell the Americans 'we are gaining progress here, don't worry,' it left a kind of good impression with some of us," he said. "They are at least better than Iraqi officials who never venture out their Green Zone to talk to normal people and see their problems. I hope that this visit will encourage Iraqi officials to leave their fortified houses inside the Green Zone."

McCain and fellow Republicans Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Representative Mike Pence of Indiana and Rep. Rick Renzi of Arizona traveled Monday to Anbar province, a Sunni insurgent stronghold west of Baghdad that also is part of the security crackdown to which President Bush has committed some 30,000 extra troops.

The congressmen met with provincial police as well as Sheik Abdul Sattar al-Rishawi, who is leading a growing movement of Sunni tribesmen who have turned against al-Qaida-linked insurgents in Anbar, the military said in a statement issued Tuesday.