McCain, a Republican presidential hopeful who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, acknowledged a difficult task lies ahead in Iraq, but criticized the media for not giving Americans enough information about the recent drop in execution-style sectarian killings, the establishment of security posts throughout the city and Sunni tribal efforts against al Qaeda in the western Anbar province.
"These and other indicators are reason for cautious, very cautious optimism about the effects of the new strategy," said McCain, who was leading a Republican congressional delegation to Iraq that included Sen. Lindsey Graham.
McCain, R-Ariz., was combative during the news conference, refusing to respond to a question about whether the U.S. had plans to attack Iran. He also replied testily to a question about remarks he had made in the United States last week that it was safe to walk some Baghdad streets.
"Things are better and there are encouraging signs. I've been here ... many times over the years. Never have I been able to drive from the airport, never have I been able go out into the city as I was today," he said.
"I'm not saying 'mission accomplished,' 'last throes,' 'dead-enders' or any of that. It's long and it's hard and it's very, very difficult," he said. "I believe that the signs are encouraging, but please don't interpret one comment of mine in any way to indicate that this isn't a long, difficult struggle."
Members of the delegation spoke at a Green Zone news conference after they rode from Baghdad's airport in armored vehicles and under heavy guard to visit the city's largest market, which was been hit by several recent bombings, including one in February that killed 137 people. They said the trips were proof that security was improving in the capital. Prominent visitors normally make the trip from the airport to the city center by helicopter.
The congressmen, who wore body armor during their hourlong shopping excursion, said they were impressed with the resilience and warmth of the Iraqi people, some of whom would not take money for their souvenirs. They were accompanied by the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus.
While the capital has seen a recent dip in violence as extra U.S. and Iraqi troops have flooded the streets, an Iraqi military spokesman said that militants fleeing the crackdown have made areas outside the capital "breeding grounds for violence," spreading deadly bombings and sectarian attacks to areas once relatively untouched.
With U.S. voters increasingly impatient with the conduct of the war and the American death toll rising, Democrats in the House and Senate have pushed through funding bills with timetables for withdrawing U.S. forces. The measures need to be reconciled before they are sent to President Bush, who has promised a veto.
Graham said setting a deadline would be a "huge mistake" and Bush would be right to use his veto because the security plan to which Bush has pledged 30,000 extra American troops was working.
The delegation included Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., and Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz.
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