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McCain says he sees Iraq progress, pronounces Baghdad safer

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Sen. John McCain used a short visit to Baghdad Sunday to highlight progress made under the city's recent security crackdown and criticize the news media for focusing on the bad news out of Iraq.

McCain, the Republican presidential contender whose strong backing of the U.S. troop surge has cost him support in the polls, spent over an hour in a central Baghdad marketplace with three other members of a congressional delegation and pronounced the city safer than he'd seen it in past visits.

"Things are better. There are encouraging signs," McCain said during a terse exchange with reporters afterward inside a U.S. military compound in the heavily guarded Green Zone.

The deaths of six American soldiers were announced on Sunday. Two of those died when a roadside bomb exploded southwest of Baghdad just before midnight Saturday. The other four died a few minutes later early Sunday when they responded to the first explosion.

All told, March was the 10th deadliest month for U.S. service personnel in Iraq since the war began, with 82 killed, according to the icasualties Web site, which tracks coalition fatalities based on official Pentagon information. Sixty-nine of those died of wounds from enemy fire.

Murders as measured by the number of unidentified bodies found in Baghdad streets have dropped under a weeks-old crackdown by U.S. and Iraqi troops, who are manning joint security outposts in parts of the city for the first time since the start of the war in 2003. Before the Baghdad security plan went into effect Feb. 15, an average of more than 30 bodies were recovered every day. That dropped to about 13 a day, though it's crept up in the past two weeks to about 19 a day. On Sunday, 16 unidentified bodies were found.

McCain's delegation drove from the airport into central Baghdad, a journey that VIP guests usually make by helicopter, without incident on Sunday. Elsewhere in the capital, violence on Sunday was muted, with nine people wounded in a variety of incidents, but no one reported killed.

But the past week in the rest of Iraq was one of the bloodiest in recent months, with more than 500 deaths. The worst violence came in the northern city of Tal Afar, where a massive truck bombing on Tuesday killed more than 83 people and triggered a revenge shooting spree that left another 45 dead, according to U.S. military statistics.

The Arizona senator, 70, appeared annoyed when asked about comments he'd made last week suggesting that it was safe to walk in Baghdad's streets. During their visit to Bab al-Sharqi market—where 88 people died in a suicide attack in January—the delegation members traveled in armored vehicles and were closely guarded by U.S. troops.

The GOP delegation—which included Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Reps. Rick Renzi or Arizona and Mike Pence of Indiana—mingled with shoppers and haggled over the price of rugs. Graham proudly announced to reporters that he'd bought five rugs for $5.

"I have been here many times over the years," McCain said. "Never have I been able to drive from the airport. Never have I been able to go out into the city as I was today.

"The American people are not getting the full picture of what's happening here."

McCain praised some recent steps by the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, including passing an oil revenue-sharing law and deploying more troop brigades throughout the city.

"Some of the steps the Maliki government is taking are encouraging, but we have a long way to go," he said.

McCain didn't directly address the bill passed by the Democrat-led Senate last week that authorized $123 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while ordering President Bush to begin withdrawing some troops within 120 days and setting a nonbinding deadline for all combat troops to pull out by March 31, 2008.

But Graham said a deadline would undermine the progress made under the troop surge.

"We're doing now what we should have done three years ago," Graham said. "If you set a deadline now it will undercut everything positive we have done."


A roundup of violence in Iraq is posted daily at Click on "Iraq war coverage."


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.