- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2008

LONDON — Sen. John McCain this morning affirmed President Bush’s decision five years ago to invade Iraq but said Americans and Britons have grown frustrated with the slow pace of progress as the aftermath of the war was “mishandled.”

Yet the presumptive Republican presidential candidate said that rapidly withdrawing U.S. troops now —a;s both his Democratic opponents for the White House say they will do if elected — would hand a victory to al Qaeda.

“That will be, frankly, a very big issue in this campaign — whether we withdraw, hand al Qaeda a win and announce to the world that they have won and things collapse there, or do we see this strategy through to success?” he said.

“I believe that if we had done what others are advocating, it would have had disastrous consequences for the United States, chaos, and further sacrifice on the part of the American people.”

Mr. McCain, who met this morning with Prime Minister Gordon Brown at 10 Downing Street, said the deteriorating situation in Iraq during the run-up to the war left Mr. Bush little choice but to invade. “It’s very clear to me that the sanctions were breaking down. Saddam Hussein in his debrief stated clearly that he had the operational network to renew his effort to acquire weapons of mass destruction,” the senator said in response to a question from The Washington Times. He added that the president’s decision last year to add 30,000 troops — a strategy he strongly supported as the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee — also was the right call. “It’s very clear to most objective observers that the surge has succeeded. Having just come from Iraq, I can tell you unequivocally that the situation has improved dramatically over the last year,” Mr. McCain said. He added, however, that he understands frustration in the United States and Britain — which still has 4,000 troops in Iraq — over the length of the war, now in its fifth year. “I fully appreciate that British public opinion has been frustrated sometimes by our lack of progress,” Mr. McCain said. “The problem with Iraq, in my view, is that it was mishandled after the initial success, and that caused great frustration and sacrifice and sorrow on the part of the American people and our allies. We are now succeeding in Iraq. Americans are, at least, I believe, in significant numbers, are agreeing that the present strategy of the surge is succeeding.” Mr. McCain warned that the work in Iraq is not yet finished. “Al Qaeda is on the run — they are not defeated. We are going to have to continue training the Iraqi military and doing what we’ve been doing if we’re going to achieve a stable situation in Iraq,” he said. The senator shook hands with Mr. Brown inside 10 Downing Street — much to the chagrin of photographers. Mr. Brown did not accompany Mr. McCain to the brief conference, leaving the Arizona senator alone to field questions about Britain’s plan to cut forces near Basra from 4,000 to about 2,500 in coming months. “I believe that decision is made by the British government and people,” he said. Still, Mr. McCain praised Britain for its sacrifice in Iraq and called Mr. Brown a strong supporter of the United States. “I appreciate very much his commitment to the continued, unique relationship between our two countries, which will remain unique,” he said. However, in Iraq, which Mr. McCain visited Sunday and Monday, the Iraqi foreign minister said British forces were “doing nothing” and had allowed the city of Basra to be overrun by militants. Hoshiyar Zebari said British troops had “disengaged” in Basra, the country’s second-largest city and major port, and said “they should not just sit there and do nothing.” “The British have disengaged, and now it’s the Iraqi commanders or officials who are handling the security,” Mr. Zebari said. Britain had hoped soon to draw down at least half of the troops left in Iraq, but renewed violence is dimming those prospects. Mr. McCain also took aim at Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama as he sought to deflect criticism after he misspoke in Amman on Tuesday. There, Mr. McCain said that Iran was training al Qaeda, but one of his traveling companions on the congressional trip, Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, leaned in and whispered into his ear that he was incorrect. “We all misspeak from time to time, and I immediately corrected it. Just as Senator Obama said he was looking forward to meeting the president of Canada,” he said with a laugh. Like Britain, Canada has a prime minister, not a president. “It’s very clear that I have a lot of experience in Iraq,” he added. Mr. McCain said he was “disturbed” by the violence in Tibet and urged China to respect the rights of demonstrators there. He backed Mr. Brown’s decision to meet Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, when he visits London in May. The visit to London was part of Mr. McCain’s weeklong visit to Iraq, Jordan and Israel, Britain and France. Also accompanied by longtime friend Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, Mr. McCain met later yesterday with Britain’s opposition Conservative Party leader, David Cameron, and Europe’s environment commissioner, Stavros Dimas. Tomorrow he meets in Paris with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

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