"All American leaders and people know what is going on in Iraq," said Hassan Suneid, a member of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa Party on Sunday. Senator John McCain's surprise visit to Baghdad, he said, was "only for the sake of his candidacy."
McCain, who is making his eighth trip to Iraq since the U.S. invaded the country in 2003, arrived on Sunday, although for security reasons, only a handful of Iraqis had been made aware of his visit. "Unfortunately," said Faleh Hassan Shansal, a member of the parliamentary bloc loyal to radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada Sadr, "all American politicians and leaders sneak into Iraq in the darkness, without letting anyone know."
The U.S. Embassy, citing security concerns, has not released McCain's itinerary, but he is expected to meet with Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq and author of the "surge" strategy backed by McCain, as well as with some Iraqi officials. But by entering Iraq unannounced, staying about a day, and leaving before many Iraqis will even know he was there, chances are slim that the Arizona Senator will learn much he didn't already know.
McCain is being accompanied by Republican Senator Lindsay Graham and former Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman, who broke with his party in large part over his support for the war. Both men are strong supporters of McCain's campaign for president. Perhaps recognizing that the visit might be perceived as a campaign stop rather than a Senate fact-finding mission, McCain has no plans to meet with the media while in Iraq.
McCain's trips have not always garnered the kind of publicity he may have liked. In early 2007, as the U.S. troop surge was getting underway, he pointed to his trip to a Baghdad market as proof that it was possible to "walk freely" in Baghdad, and that the media was not providing Americans with a full picture of the situation in Iraq. It was soon revealed that McCain had been accompanied on his market trip by two attack helicopters and dozens of American soldiers, calling into question his grasp of the situation.
That embarrassment has since been softened somewhat by the drop in violence that began in mid-2007, although violence levels have begun rising again in recent months. But, while McCain's strong support for the surge has set him apart from his potential Democratic opponents and even from many Republicans, the perception in the U.S. that McCain offers a significantly different approach to Iraq than can be expected from his rivals is not shared by many Iraqis. They see more similarities than differences among U.S. politicians, and are not expecting much to change in 2009.
"Things will never change, whether Clinton or Obama or McCain comes to the White House," said Suneid. "Whoever is in the White House will continue the American agenda."