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“Well, then,” replied the senator, “why was there a banner that said ‘Mission Accomplished’ on the aircraft carrier? The major conflict is over.”

But this view changed after he went to Iraq in August 2003 and met a blunt-spoken British commander in Basra, where a disintegrating situation was turning to chaos.

The British colonel

Unlike most of his Senate colleagues, Mr. McCain did not take a vacation or junket during the lengthy summer recess in 2003. Instead, along with Mr. Graham, he went with a congressional delegation to Iraq. With his trademark curiosity and adherence to Ronald Reagan’s famous caution to “trust but verify,” the senator wanted to see for himself the victory that America had won so quickly.

Once on the ground, the senators were taken into Basra, a Shi’ite city in southeastern Iraq controlled by British troops. “I never will forget it,” Mr. Graham recalled. “He gets up and starts speaking, looks at Senator McCain and says, ‘You know, I’m a British citizen, I don’t pay taxes in America and I will never vote for you and I will probably never see you again, but here’s what I think: We don’t have it right - we don’t have enough people, I don’t have the right kind of people. If we do not get ahead of this, it is going to be a very big problem.’”

“That British colonel opened our eyes beyond anything else. You can be briefed in Washington, they can show you charts, but when you get on the ground and actually talk to the people it’s a completely different story,” Mr. Graham said.

The two senators quickly concluded that conditions inside Iraq were clearly worse than American commanders were reporting to the White House. While Mr. McCain and the others were in Iraq, 17 people, including the top U.N. envoy who was a key figure in the political transformation of Iraq, were slain in an attack on an installation of the United Nations. The attack occurred as the senators were meeting with U.S. Ambassador L. Paul Bremer and Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, then the commander of U.S. troops.

Mr. McCain, characteristically blunt, looked the ambassador and the general “right in the eye,” Mr. Graham recalled, “and said, ‘You’re going to have to start shooting some of these looters.’ It was his belief that the looting and the other signs of the growing insurgency had to be dealt with and he asked point-blank, ‘Do you have enough troops?’ Everybody said ‘Yes.’”

An about-face

Mr. McCain’s opinion changed on that first trip. The campaign to oust Saddam Hussein and neutralize Iraq’s military had been won, but the peace was at risk because of an insurgency that, fueled in part by Iran and Syria, had quickly materialized. The insurgents were gaining.

“I think there’s a danger that unless we do what’s necessary quickly, that we could find ourselves in an extremely - and I emphasize extremely - difficult situation,” he said Aug. 29 in an interview on National Public Radio. “We need more troops.”

The senator said on “Meet the Press” that another division of troops - 20,000 soldiers - was needed to secure Iraq, and repeated the call for two months.

His rhetoric crystallized in November 2003 in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. With inside-the-Beltway punditocracy beginning to call Iraq a “quagmire” - the term that came to define the Vietnam War - the senator repeatedly insisted that “Iraq is no Vietnam.”

But he again called for more troops and a strengthened will to win the war. “The simple truth is that we do not have sufficient forces in Iraq to meet our military objectives,” he said. “Simply put, there does not appear to be a strategy behind our current force levels in Iraq, other than to preserve the illusion that we have sufficient forces in place to meet our objectives.”

As evidence, he cited Gen. Sanchez’s acknowledgement from the ground in Iraq that his forces could not handle new battles. “If a militia or an internal conflict of some nature were to erupt,” the senator quoted the general, “that would be a challenge out there that I do not have sufficient forces for.”

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