Baghdad After a heavily guarded trip to a Baghdad market, Sen. John McCain insisted Sunday that a U.S.-Iraqi security crackdown in the capital was working and said Americans lacked a "full picture" of the progress. The U.S. military later reported six soldiers were killed in roadside bombings southwest of Baghdad.
Four soldiers were killed responding to the blast that killed the first two, the military said. Britain, meanwhile, announced that one of its soldiers had been shot to death in southern Iraq - its 104th combat casualty since the war started four years ago.
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-Qaida 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," 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 under heavy guard to visit the city's largest market, which was been hit by bombings including a February attack 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.
As of Sunday, at least 3,253 U.S. service members have died in Iraq since the war began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
The delegation included Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., and Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz.
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.
Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, the Iraqi military spokesman, promised that recent attacks would not derail the neighborhood sweeps that began in Baghdad on Feb. 14.
More than 600 Iraqis have been killed in sectarian violence since March 25, most in a series of high-profile suicide bombings. Among them were at least 152 people killed in a suicide truck bombing in Tal Afar - the deadliest single strike since the war began four years ago. Shiites, including police, went on a revenge shooting rampage afterward, killing at least 45 Sunni men.