- The Washington Times - Monday, March 17, 2008

BAGHDAD (AP) — Sen. John McCain, the likely Republican presidential nominee, arrived here yesterday for a visit with Iraqi and U.S. diplomatic and military officials.

The trip by Mr. McCain, who has linked his political future to U.S. military success in the nearly five-year-old war, coincided with the 20th anniversary of a horrific chemical weapons attack in northern Iraq.

Mr. McCain met with Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh and was to meet with Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, according to the U.S. Embassy.

Further details of Mr. McCain’s visit, which had been anticipated, were not being released for security reasons, the embassy said.

Before leaving the U.S., Mr. McCain, one of the foremost proponents of the March 2003 U.S.-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,” he said, responding to a question during a campaign appearance in Pennsylvania. “I know they pay attention because of the intercepts we have of their communications.”

Mr. McCain, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, was accompanied by Sens. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, and Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, two top supporters of his presidential ambitions.

The weeklong trip will take Mr. McCain to Israel, Jordan, France and Britain, including his first meeting with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. He also is expected to meet with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other Israeli officials.

His focus in Iraq was thought to be the drop in sectarian violence and U.S. and civilian casualties since last summer. Exactly what was discussed, however, was not clear because numerous telephone calls to aides traveling with Mr. McCain went unanswered.

Elsewhere, Kurds in northern Iraq have 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. Saddam was executed for other crimes against humanity before he could face trial for the attacks.

Mr. McCain’s trip to Iraq marks his eighth. He met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki during the Thanksgiving holiday.

On a visit last April, the Arizona senator criticized news reports that he said focused unfairly on violence and said Americans were not getting a “full picture” of progress in the security crackdown in the capital. Violence has dropped throughout the capital since, with an influx of some 30,000 additional U.S. troops sent to Iraq last year. The U.S. military has said attacks have fallen by about 60 percent since last February.

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