McCain visits Iraq on anniversary of Kurdish massacre
Meetings planned with diplomats, military officials
BAGHDAD - Senator John McCain, the likely Republican presidential nominee, arrived in Baghdad yesterday for a visit with Iraqi and US diplomatic and military officials.
The trip by McCain, who has linked his political future to US military success in the nearly five-year-old war, coincided with the 20th anniversary of a horrific chemical weapons attack in northern Iraq.
McCain met with Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh and planned to meet with General David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, according to the US Embassy. Further details of McCain's visit, which had been anticipated, were not being released for security reasons, the embassy said.
Before leaving the United States, McCain, one of the foremost proponents of the March 2003 US-led invasion, said the trip to the Middle East and Europe was for fact-finding purposes, not a campaign photo opportunity.
But he expressed public worries that militants in Iraq might try to influence the November general election.
"Yes, I worry about it," the Arizona senator said, responding to a question during a campaign appearance in Pennsylvania. "And I know they pay attention, because of the intercepts we have of their communications."
McCain, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, was accompanied by senators Joseph Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, and Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, two top supporters of his presidential ambitions.
The weeklong trip will take McCain to Israel, Britain, and France, and include his first meeting with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. He also is expected to meet with President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, and Israeli officials including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
His focus in Iraq was thought to be the drop in sectarian violence and US and civilian casualties since last summer. Exactly what was discussed, however, remained unclear because numerous telephone calls to aides traveling with McCain went unanswered.
Elsewhere, Kurds in northern Iraq commemorated the anniversary of the chemical weapons attack in Halabja, near the Iranian border, with solemn observances. The streets were empty and heavily patrolled by Iraqi security forces.
Saddam Hussein ordered the 1988 attack as part of a scorched-earth campaign to crush a Kurdish rebellion in the north, which was seen as aiding Iran near the end of its war with Iraq. Hussein was executed for other crimes against humanity before he could face trial for the attacks.
McCain's trip to Iraq is his eighth. Last November he met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki during the US Thanksgiving holiday.
On a visit last April, the Arizona senator criticized news reports he said focused unfairly on violence, and said Americans were not getting a full picture of progress in the security crackdown in the capital.
McCain was combative toward reporters' questions in the heavily guarded Green Zone, and responded testily to a question about his comment that it was safe to walk some Baghdad streets. He later acknowledged traveling with armed US military escorts.
Violence has dropped throughout the capital since, with an influx of about 30,000 additional US soldiers last year. The US military has said attacks have fallen by about 60 percent since last February.
Still, violence continues in some parts of the country, according to reports from police officials.
Yesterday, a parked car bomb exploded in western Baghdad's Mansour neighborhood, killing one person and wounding two others. Two civilians and nine others were wounded in Mosul after a suicide bomber detonated his explosive vest, police said. A roadside bomb killed another person in the northwestern city.
Just outside Baqouba, the capital of restive Diyala Province, three people were killed in clashes between police and a faction of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, police said. In the city, gunmen killed a city hall employee, police said.
Police also found the bullet-riddled bodies of at least 16 people in Baghdad, Muqdadiyah, Mosul, and the southern cities of Basra and Kut, where Shi'ite militia violence has been on the rise.