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Stakes are enormous in Iraq for McCain

  • Story Highlights
  • Sen. John McCain arrived in Baghdad alongside Senate colleagues
  • Vice President Dick Cheney also in Iraq to meet with the country's top officials
  • McCain: "We are succeeding. And we can succeed" in Iraq
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By John King
CNN Washington Bureau
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- For a few hours on Monday, the halls of Saddam Hussein's Republican Palace -- the seat of his rule -- looked like a scene from the U.S. Capitol.

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Sen. John McCain talks with CNN's John King in Baghdad on Monday.

Trademark cup of coffee in hand, Sen. John McCain of Arizona strode down the hall, then turned in to a meeting room to be joined by two legislative and political allies, Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut.

A few yards away, a security detail ushered Vice President Dick Cheney, who serves as president of the Senate in his constitutional role, into another meeting.

Both the vice president and the Senate delegation were here for a firsthand look at the security and political situation in Iraq, and their agendas both included time with the U.S. commanding general as well as senior Iraqi officials.Video Watch more on Cheney's unannounced visit »

Their stop at the palace overlapped for about an hour, but the vice president did not interact with McCain and the other senators; Cheney arrived while McCain was sitting down for an interview with CNN and he was in a meeting with Gen. David Petreaus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker as the senators moved on to their next meeting after the interview. Video Watch Cheney meet with top Iraqi officials »

For McCain, the stakes are enormous. Iraq is a divisive policy fight in Congress and a huge political divide on the presidential campaign trail, where he promotes the surge policy as a success and the two remaining Democratic candidates compete for anti-war votes.

"The surge is working," McCain declared emphatically in the CNN interview, conducted on the balcony of the palace that now houses the U.S. ambassador's office. He said his view was strengthened by visits to neighborhoods in Mosul, Ramadi, Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, and by his briefings here.

Taking a position that reverberates in the campaign, McCain said U.S. troop reductions should pause once the 30,000 combat troops added for the surge are rotated back to the United States. That would leave U.S. troop levels at roughly 145,000. Video Watch McCain discuss the future of Iraq »

Democrats have insisted that further troop reductions should continue. But commanders in Iraq are increasingly of the view that further troop reductions could undermine recent security gains, and favor a pause to solidify their positions.

McCain said he was strongly inclined to agree.

"We probably should hold with 15 brigades for a while and see how the progress goes. There is a big fight going on up in Mosul right now and although it is progressing, I think it is al Qaeda's -- not al Qaeda's last stand, it is al Qaeda's place where they feel that they need to keep Mosul in order to survive."

While upbeat about security gains, McCain was more sober when the conversation turned to the political situation and the capabilities of the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

"All of us are frustrated with some of the progress they haven't made, particularly provincial elections," McCain said. "That needs to happen. The Sunni boycotted the elections last time. And now they are ready to take part in the election. Thousands of young Sunnis are now in these patriotic brigades and protecting their neighborhoods. And now they want to have representation as well."

"So they need to pass the oil revenue-sharing -- the hydrocarbon law. They need to have a better functioning government in many ways. They have got too many ministries. They have got too many bureaucracies. And rule of law is probably, if I had to set priority, frankly, the rule of law is the highest priority."

Again he states the facts are on his side, that withdrawing troops too fast would undermine the security gains and create a climate where political reforms were even more unlikely.

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"We are succeeding. And we can succeed and American casualties overall are way down. That is in direct contradiction to the predictions made by the Democrats and particularly Sen. [Barack] Obama and Sen. [Hillary] Clinton.

"I will be glad to stake my campaign on the fact that this has succeeded and the American people appreciate it. Now will we be able to succeed fast enough? Will they be able to -- al Qaeda be able to come back? That is a tough question. They are on the run, but they are not defeated." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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