A Veteran's Platform McCain Runs on Iraq in Michigan

On the stump in Michigan, John McCain campaigns on victory in Iraq. It's a risky strategy, as the recent surge in violence shows.

By Juan Cole

US Senator and Republican presidential candidate John McCain

US Senator and Republican presidential candidate John McCain

John McCain campaigned in Michigan this weekend on national security issues and Iraq, insisting that the United States is closing in on victory in Iraq and needs time to complete the mission. He spoke about Iraq in the small town of Clawson, telling voters in Tuesday's Republican primary, "We are winning this. Let's pursue it to the end together and stop this bitter partisanship."

Republican voters seem to trust the former prisoner of war on matters military. Ironically, the foremost proponent of the surge in the 2008 field, the man who proclaimed a willingness to stay in Iraq for a century if necessary, has even emerged as the favorite of those Republicans who express anxiety about the Iraq war and question the Bush administration's conduct of same. McCain won heavily among that constituency in New Hampshire last Tuesday, and a Detroit Free Press poll found that McCain led former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney by more than 15 percentage points among the nearly one-quarter of Michigan Republicans for whom Iraq is the No. 1 issue. Looking past Tuesday's primary, however, McCain's strategy of declaring an ongoing victory is extremely risky. January has already seen a sharp uptick in violence, leaving dozens of Iraqi civilians and 20 US soldiers dead since the beginning of the year, with the potential to bring into question the Arizona senator's credibility if the violence continues at that rate.

In December, Gen. David Petraeus, commander of ground forces in Iraq, had cautioned that "what has been achieved here remains tenuous and is still fragile in a number of areas." His prudence was vindicated the week after New Year's Day when Iraqi insurgents killed nine US troops in two days. The deaths came in the course of a US push against radical Muslim guerrillas in Salahuddin and Diyala provinces. In the latter, US troops entered a booby-trapped house while pursuing guerrillas, and when the bombs detonated they killed six soldiers and wounded four. On Saturday, a bomb killed one US soldier and wounded four while they were operating in the northern province of Nineveh. In all of December, 23 US soldiers had died in action, whereas by mid-January the toll was already 19.

At a news conference in connection with President George W. Bush's Jan. 11 trip to Kuwait, Gen. Petraeus expressed concern that whereas the specialized roadside bombs called "explosively formed projectiles" (EFPs) had been deployed with much less frequency late in 2007, the Iraqi insurgency had begun using them again in 2008. He remarked, "In this year, EFP use has gone up actually, over about the last 10 days, by a factor of two or three." Explosively formed projectiles can penetrate even armored vehicles and tanks, and are a major source of fatalities among US troops.

On the same day that the six troops died in the booby-trapped house, members of the major Sunni Arab bloc in the Iraqi parliament said they were extremely worried about the revival of violence in Baghdad, the killings of a number of members of the pro-American Awakening Councils, and the failure of the Shiite government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to back the Sunni neighborhood patrols. Their concern was provoked by the numerous attacks launched by Sunni radicals on the Awakening Councils in the first week of January.

On Jan. 7, a suicide bomber with a belt bomb, helped by an accomplice driving a car bomb, attacked the offices of the local pro-American Awakening Council in the eastern Baghdad district of Adhamiya, killing 14 persons and wounding 25. One of the dead was Col. Riyadh al-Samarrai, an Awakening Council leader in the neighborhood. The same day, in the Shaab district near Adhamiya, guerrillas in five cars kidnapped 10 volunteers from an Awakening Council group manning a traffic checkpoint. On the previous day, a suicide bomber waded into a crowd of soldiers at the annual Army Day celebration in the capital. He detonated his fatal payload, killing 11 persons and wounding 17, coloring the street red with blood and scattering body parts.

January has also witnessed a wave of bombings of Christian churches. On the sixth, a Sunday, insurgents targeted three churches and a monastery in the major northern city of Mosul. In an attack clearly coordinated with the Mosul explosion, insurgents launched a mortar attack on a Roman Orthodox Church in east Baghdad and on a monastery to the south in Zaafaraniya. Six persons were wounded in these attacks. Just three days later, guerrillas bombed two churches in the northern oil city of Kirkuk. The coordinated bombings of churches provoked Pope Benedict XVI to express "deep concern" about the condition of Iraqi Christians. Some observers estimate that only half of Iraq's 800,000 Christians are still in the country, and that most of the other half have sought refuge in Syria and Lebanon.

There is more than anecdotal evidence for the surge in violence in 2008. Statistics bear it out. There have been an average of 14 deaths per day from car bombs in Iraq in January, according to Iraq Body Count, besting the 2007 average of 8.5. And according to press reports, snipers have been killing an average of 38 Iraqis a day in the first half of January, less than the 56 per day in 2007 but substantially more than the 26 per day in 2006. Two weeks is too short a period from which to generalize, but it seems clear that the new year has not started out on a good foot, and it is already clear that December's much reduced casualty figures were a lull, not a trend.


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