BAGHDAD — Vice President Dick Cheney on Monday made a surprise visit to Baghdad, where he pledged that U.S. forces would "not quit before the job is done" and said that a massive troop buildup had achieved "phenomenal" improvements in security.
At sunset Monday, however, a female suicide bomber killed at least 40 people and injured more than 50 when she blew herself up in a crowded pedestrian area near a Shiite Muslim shrine in the southern holy city of Karbala, according to government and hospital officials. Among the victims were several Iranian pilgrims who'd come to worship at the Imam Hussein shrine, one of Islam's most sacred sites.
And the U.S. military announced the deaths of two soldiers who were killed Monday when their Humvee struck a roadside bomb north of Baghdad, bringing the number of American troop deaths to at least 3,990 since the war began.
Cheney told a news conference in Baghdad that the invasion of Iraq five years ago this week was a "difficult, challenging, but nonetheless successful endeavor." However, he said that obstacles remain and that the decision on whether to begin reducing forces depends on political reconciliation and the ability to preserve the hard-won security gains of the past year.
"It would be a mistake now to be so eager to draw down the force that we risk putting the outcome in jeopardy," Cheney said. "And I don't think we'll do that."
Cheney's trip overlapped with a visit by Republican presidential candidate John McCain, who arrived Sunday for a two-day fact-finding mission for the Senate Armed Services Committee. Cheney is on a nine-day tour with stops scheduled in Saudi Arabia, Jerusalem, the Palestinian territories, Turkey and Oman.
Both Cheney and McCain have been strong backers of the "surge" strategy, which sent 30,000 more American troops to Iraq in an effort to drive out Islamist extremists and reduce the sectarian violence that has claimed thousands of lives and transformed Baghdad into a maze of walled-off, segregated neighborhoods.
The year-old surge has helped reduce bloodshed throughout Iraq — with the number of attacks down by more than half — though many skeptical Iraqis view the lull in violence as temporary.
Cheney spent Monday in a tightly choreographed hopscotch, moving at least six times for high-level meetings. In the fortress-like Green Zone compound, which houses the U.S. and Iraqi headquarters, he met Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki; Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq; and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker.
Maliki said his talks with Cheney focused on negotiations for a long-term U.S.-Iraqi security agreement that would replace the United Nations mandate for foreign troops, which expires at the end of the year.
Traveling under military guard along roads that had been swept for bombs and were lined with security forces, Cheney ventured a mile or so outside the Green Zone to call on Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Abdelaziz al Hakim, the head of the powerful Iranian-backed Shiite party known as the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.
Cheney intended to press Iraqi leaders to pass an oil law that could help persuade international energy firms to invest in production, U.S. officials said. He also was urging Iraqis to stick to their goal of October elections and discussing mutual concerns about neighboring countries such as Turkey, Syria and Iran.
"I was last in Baghdad 10 months ago, and I can sense, as a result of the progress that's been made since then, that there have been some phenomenal changes, in terms of the overall situation, both with respect to the security situation, where Iraqi and American forces have done some very good work, as well as with respect to political developments here in Iraq," Cheney said after meeting Maliki.
The majority of casualties in the Karbala suicide bombing were female pilgrims who'd gathered at refreshment stands about a half-mile from the shrine, said Saleem Kadhim, a spokesman for the Husseini Hospital, which received 40 dead and 56 injured from the blast.
Medics from nearby towns were called in to help the overflowing hospital, and the government imposed an open-ended citywide curfew on Karbala.
"I was near the bus station when I saw a woman who was pushing others and then, a few seconds later, I saw a flame in the sky," said Jassim Hussein, 32, who helped carry victims from the scene. "I blame the Baathists and members of the old regime. As you know, Karbala is a target for so many enemies, especially those against the Shiites. And I also blame the security forces because we don't have checkpoints in this area."
Iraqi authorities seemed confident that the bomber was a woman, though the U.S. military cautioned that it was too early to determine the attacker's identity. In the extremely conservative south, nearly all women wear flowing black robes called abayas, which some male militants have donned to carry out attacks or to escape capture.
In other violence Monday, a car bomb exploded at a busy intersection in the Baghdad neighborhood of Karrada, wounding eight people. Three separate roadside bombs in the capital also left casualties: One policeman was killed and one wounded when their patrol was targeted near a teachers' training institute in Mansour; three Iraqi civilians died at a busy intersection near the Shaab Stadium in Zayuna; and one civilian was injured near the landmark Mr. Milk grocery store in Mansour.
(Allam reported from Baghdad; special correspondent Qassim Zein reported from Najaf. Steve Lannen of the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader contributed, along with special correspondent Hussein Kadhim.)