(CBS/AP) Sen. John McCain, the likely Republican presidential nominee, arrived in Baghdad on Sunday for a visit with Iraqi and U.S. diplomatic and military officials.
The trip by McCain, who has linked his political future to U.S. military success in the nearly five-year-old war, coincided with the 20th anniversary of a horrific chemical weapons attack in northern Iraq.
McCain met with Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh and planned to meet with Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, according to the U.S. Embassy. Further details of McCain's visit, which had been anticipated, were not being released for security reasons, the embassy said.
Before leaving the United States, McCain, one of the foremost proponents of the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion, said the trip to the Middle East and Europe was for fact-finding purposes, not a campaign photo opportunity.
But he expressed public worries that militants in Iraq might try to influence the November general election.
"Yes, I worry about it," he said, responding to a question during a campaign appearance in Pennsylvania. "And I know they pay attention, because of the intercepts we have of their communications."
McCain, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, was accompanied by Sens. Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., two top supporters of his presidential ambitions.
The weeklong trip will take McCain to Israel, Britain and France, and include his first meeting with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. He also is expected to meet with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other Israeli officials.
His focus in Iraq was thought to be the drop in sectarian violence and U.S. and civilian casualties since last summer. Exactly what was discussed, however, remained unclear since numerous telephone calls to aides traveling with McCain went unanswered.
Elsewhere, Kurds in northern Iraq commemorated the anniversary of the chemical weapons attack in Halabja, near the Iranian border, with solemn observances. The streets were empty and heavily patrolled by Iraqi security forces.
Saddam Hussein ordered the 1988 attack as part of a scorched-earth campaign to crush a Kurdish rebellion in the north, which was seen as aiding Iran near the end of its war with Iraq. Saddam was executed for other crimes against humanity before he could face trial for the attacks.
McCain's trip to Iraq is his eighth. Last November, he met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki during the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday.
On a visit last April, the Arizona senator criticized news reports he said focused unfairly on violence, and said Americans were not getting a "full picture" of progress in the security crackdown in the capital.
McCain was combative toward reporters' questions in the heavily guarded Green Zone, and responded testily to a question about his comment that it was safe to walk some Baghdad streets. He later acknowledged traveling with armed U.S. military escorts.
Violence has dropped throughout the capital since, with an influx of some 30,000 additional U.S. soldiers sent to Iraq last year. The U.S. military has said attacks have fallen by about 60 percent since last February.
Still, violence continues in some parts of the country, according to reports from police officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak to the media.
On Sunday, a parked car bomb exploded in western Baghdad's Mansour neighborhood, killing one person and wounding two others. Two civilians and nine others were wounded in Mosul when a suicide bomber detonated his explosive vest, police said. A roadside bomb killed another person in the northwestern city.
Just outside Baqouba, the capital of restive Diyala province, three people were killed in clashes between police and a faction of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, police said. In the city itself, gunmen killed a city hall employee, police said.
Police also found the bullet-riddled bodies of at least 16 people in Baghdad, Muqdadiyah, Mosul and the southern cities of Basra and Kut, where Shiite militia violence has been on the rise.
In Washington, two of McCain's colleagues who support Democrats for president, said senators - including candidate McCain - have the right to visit various parts of the world.
But, said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif: "I think it would have probably have been better if he took members who were not so closely identified with his campaign. But this is indicated to be a congressional visit.
"Obviously the world's going to watch it, and we'll know whether it's exploited for other reasons. I don't believe it will be, but we'll see," Feinstein, who supports New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton for president, said on CNN's "Late Edition." She appeared with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who supports Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.
With Troop Buildup In Baghdad, Violence Spreads Throughout Rest of Country
The influx of thousands of U.S. forces has driven down insurgent attacks in Baghdad, but violence elsewhere in Iraq raises questions about whether killings will continue to drop as
American forces begin to leave, the United Nations said Saturday.
Violent attacks have grown more frequent in recent weeks.
Thirteen U.S. soldiers have been killed in a week, including a soldier who was killed Saturday when he was shot during combat operations in Baghdad. Five others died in a single suicide attack in central Baghdad last week. In a separate attack a week ago, two massive bombs hit Baghdad's Karradah neighborhood, killing 68 people.
With Saturday's death, at least 3,988 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
The report from the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq describes how, as security improved in Baghdad, violent attacks spread last year to other parts of the country, including Diyala Province and Mosul, al-Qaida's last urban stronghold.
"The government of Iraq continued to face enormous challenges in its efforts to bring sectarian violence and other criminal activity under control against a backdrop of political instability," the report, which examined the last six months of 2007, said.
Thousands of additional U.S. forces went to Iraq starting last year as part of a strategy by Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, to secure the capital and give Iraq's politicians breathing room to cut deals that would bring minority Sunni Arabs into the government and weaken the insurgency.
While the U.S. military has said a 60 percent reduction in attacks followed the influx of more than 20,000 additional troops, known as the surge, the extra security has not succeeded in accomplishing the political benchmarks that was the goal.
Military officials did not respond to requests for comment.
The report, the 12th issued from the U.N. in Iraq, comes in the wake of the first sizable reduction in troops since a security plan began last year.
Three months ago, U.S. military officials sent home one brigade numbering about 5,000 troops. Further reductions, however, are being delayed for three months so military commanders in Iraq can assess progress.
The U.N. report cautioned against hasty conclusions because "the extent to which the decrease in violence was sustainable remained unclear."
Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. chief in Iraq, said so-called Awakening Councils, groups composed of former Sunni fighters who have accepted U.S. funding to switch allegiances and fight al Qaeda in Iraq, have played an important role in stopping violence.
The report also raised questions about human rights violations at detainment facilities in Kurdistan, and the conduct of private security firms such as Blackwater Worldwide, which remains at the center of a federal probe following the deaths 17 Iraqi civilians last year.
In Other Developments:
On Saturday, Iraqi security forces clashed with a breakaway faction of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army in Kut, leaving six dead and 21 others injured, police said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release information.
A roadside bomb hidden in a trash can also killed a street sweeper and injured eight others in Baghdad's Karradah neighborhood, a police officer said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
The U.S. military also said Saturday that Iraqi police, led by an informant, discovered a large weapons cache that included dozens of rockets and mortars, machine guns and parts to build nearly 100 armor-piercing bombs known as explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs, which U.S. officials say come from Iran.
A suicide bomber detonated an explosive vest a day earlier at a checkpoint near the Syrian border, killing an interpreter and wounding six others, including two coalition soldiers, military officials said. No other details were immediately available.