McCain turns Bush on Iraq war surge

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Soon the architects of the failing strategy in Iraq - the generals and their civilian superiors - would be banished, and a dissenting general who had sought an increase in troops and a new counterinsurgency strategy would take charge of the war in Iraq.

The president, with no acknowledgement then of Mr. McCain’s arguments, would adopt the senator’s plan. Democrats who predicted the failure of what they mockingly called “the McCain surge” would fall silent when the 20,000-troop increase led to a dramatic reduction of violence, falling to a low of just 11 troops killed in July.

“They don’t call it that anymore,” Sen. Lindsey Graham said, smiling in triumph.

The South Carolina Republican, an early convert to the McCain cause who observed much of the senator’s backdoor efforts, is unabashed in his praise for his longtime friend, blinking back a tear as he recalls trips he took to Iraq with his colleague.

“Without John McCain, there would never have been the surge,” he said emphatically.

Mr. McCain declined to be interviewed for this account, privately telling an aide, “I won’t take credit for the surge.” Other top advisers said he won’t talk about private conversations with the president and the military leaders serving under him. The man who refused to leave his Vietnam prison camp ahead of those captured before him is said to be determined not to take credit for success that belongs to soldiers.

Mr. McCain’s views contrast sharply with those of his Democratic rival in the November election. Sen. Barack Obama, a freshman senator from Illinois, joined his party’s elders to oppose the surge, even after military leaders agreed that it was necessary, and now only grudgingly acknowledges the success of the surge.

Mr. McCain’s plea for change in Iraq, and how he finally accomplished it, is detailed here through scores of documents and interviews conducted by The Times during a six-month investigation.

‘Mission Accomplished’

Just six weeks after the start of the war, Mr. Bush flew in a Lockheed S-3 Viking fighter-bomber to a smooth landing on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln as the aircraft carrier bobbed in the Pacific in May 2003. Its crew had just returned from combat operations in the Persian Gulf.

Mr. Bush was greeted by the crew with wild enthusiasm, posing for photographs in his flight suit with pilots and ship crewmen beneath a huge banner boasting “Mission Accomplished.” The White House would later say the banner was meant in salute only to the crew of the Abraham Lincoln.

“In the battle of Iraq,” the president said, “the United States and our allies have prevailed.” But he warned there was still “difficult work to do in Iraq. We are bringing order to parts of that country that remain dangerous.”

In the following weeks, hawks in the Senate who had pushed for war in Iraq began to feel vindicated. Their prime spokesman - a man literally born into the military and the progeny of two Navy heroes - Mr. McCain had declared a week after the war began March 19, 2003, “there’s no doubt in my mind that we will prevail and there’s no doubt in my mind, once these people are gone, that we will be welcomed as liberators.”

Three weeks after the president’s speech, Mr. McCain took to the chamber’s floor to proclaim an American triumph of arms. “We won a massive victory in a few weeks, and we did so with very limited loss of American and allied lives,” he declared.

The senator felt the same way a month later, when Fox News’ Neil Cavuto stated flatly that “many argue the conflict isn’t over.”

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