BAGHDAD Republican presidential candidate John McCain made his eighth trip to Iraq on Sunday, this time holding private talks with U.S. and Iraqi officials about security developments at the end of a bloody week marked by a spike in U.S. troop deaths and a new wave of suicide bombings.
A dozen American soldiers have been killed since March 10, edging the total U.S. death toll closer to 4,000, while suicide bombings and other violence left at least 127 Iraqis dead and nearly 400 wounded throughout the country during the same period, according to Iraqi and U.S. authorities.
The past week's spasm of violence underscored the fragility of modest gains from the 30,000-troop increase known as "the surge," which McCain has backed since it began a year ago. The number of attacks in Iraq had dropped by more than half since June, but those figures have begun creeping up since the beginning of the year. U.S. military officials acknowledged the recent upswing in violence, but insisted the setback was only temporary.
Rear Adm. Greg Smith, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq, told a news conference Sunday that violence levels remain unacceptably high and that al-Qaida in Iraq is still present and able to carry out attacks. Yet he was upbeat about long-term prospects for a political solution to the violence.
"There is great hope when you consider the people of Iraq have largely rejected violence and are looking for a positive way forward," Smith said.
On Sunday, five bombings in Baghdad and north of the capital killed a total of two Iraqis and wounded at least 16. Clashes in the Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, killed five insurgents and three policemen, according to local authorities. Five unidentified corpses were discovered in Baghdad, police said.
Also, the U.S. military announced that troops shot to death an unarmed Iraqi man whose car had failed to stop as it approached a foot patrol Saturday in the capital's Mansour neighborhood, according to a statement from the U.S. command.
McCain, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, was accompanied by two other committee members: Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, an independent, and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. Before leaving on the trip, McCain described it as a fact-finding mission. The other stops are in Israel, Britain and France.
The Baghdad visit was unannounced for security reasons and McCain made no public statements Sunday.
The senators were due to meet with U.S. military commanders and Iraqi leaders, possibly including beleaguered Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Many Kurds from the northern town of Halabja were furious with al-Maliki for failing to show up at memorial services marking the 20th anniversary of the chemical bombardment that killed an estimated 5,000 Kurds and caused severe ailments that persist for many of the attack's survivors.
Shops were closed Sunday, police fanned out throughout Halabja and dozens of Kurds gathered in a town square ahead of al-Maliki's expected arrival. Loudspeakers boomed somber poetry and families with relatives who died in the gas attack sobbed and carried portraits of the victims. About midday, the mourners realized that Maliki was a no-show and their anticipation turned to outrage.
"We were waiting for his arrival since yesterday. We were dreaming that he would announce the start of a rebuilding campaign for Halabja and for victim compensation, but now we're disappointed with Maliki and his government," said Bikhal Jafar, a high-school student whose older brother and sister died in the gas attack.
"Maliki's absence is a sign of his lack of credibility. He's lost our trust because he promised to visit Halabja three times since the start of the year," said Malko Redha, 21.
The Iraqi government has pledged $6 million to address the needs of Halabja a promise many Kurds called long overdue. Leaders of the Society for the Victims of Chemical Bombardment, an advocacy group, said about 200 people who were exposed to poison gas remain seriously ill and cannot get necessary medication from local hospitals. In addition, Halabja residents complained of a lack of basic services, such as potable water, sewage treatment and paved roads.
"The city is neglected, only remembered on this occasion with ceremonies and speeches. It's more in need of services than ceremonies," said Hakeem Jameel, 31, a veterinarian from Halabja. "A large part of the city is still in ruins, the living victims still await treatment, the families of the deceased still await compensation and the persons who caused them so much sorrow have not paid the just legal penalty."
(Allam reported from Baghdad; special correspondent Taha reported from Halabja. Steve Lannen of the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader contributed from Baghdad, along with McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Laith Hammoudi.)