White House Hopeful McCain Sees Progress In Iraq

WASHINGTON (AP) - Republican presidential contender John McCain
said Tuesday, "we are starting to turn things around" in the Iraq
war, as he broke off campaigning in Florida to vote against a
proposed troop withdrawal timeline.

In a speech on the Senate floor, the Arizona Republican said
President Bush's decision to dispatch additional troops last winter
"is working far better than even the most optimistic supporter had
predicted. Progress is tangible in many key areas despite the fact
that only 40 percent of the planned forces are in Iraq," he added.

McCain spoke on a day in which two nearly simultaneous attacks
outside Baghdad killed at least 48 Iraqis, and he said he did not
want to paint an overly optimistic picture. He added, "I have been
critical of the conduct of this war since 2003, and very much
regret that only now, four years into the conflict, are we
beginning to implement the kind of strategy that was necessary from
the start."

Aides said it was the first time he had systematically addressed
recent events in Iraq, and he had decided to do so on the Senate
floor in the run-up to a pivotal vote.

The assessment also came at a politically pivotal time, as
McCain, once the presumed Republican front-runner, attempts to halt
a reversal in the polls that has jolted his presidential hopes.

A heavy majority of Americans opposes the war in Iraq and
doesn't approve of Bush's handling of the conflict. Yet the most
ardent Republicans still approve it, and the presidential rivals
are vying for the support of hard-core GOP voters.

"What we cannot do, and for the sake of America's vital
national security interests, we must not do, is give up just at the
moment we are starting to turn things around in Iraq," McCain

Using a color-coded map of Iraq as a prop, McCain said Iraqi
army battalions have arrived for duty as called for, many at or
above 75 percent of their programmed levels, bomb attacks and
murders are down since the new policy was implemented and the
number of civilians killed in Baghdad dropped from 1,222 in
December to 494 in February.

He said U.S. forces have moved out of large bases to take up
positions in small outposts as part of a shift in strategy.
"Contrary to predictions, this has not increased U.S. casualties.
And, not surprisingly, our presence has resulted in a dramatic
increase in actionable intelligence about terrorists," he said.

McCain said the debate in the Senate had an Alice in Wonderland
quality to it, with critics of the war attempting to "micromanage
a conflict based on what the conditions were three months ago - not
what the reality is today."

The day's events marked the first time McCain has broken off
campaigning to cast a Senate vote on the war. He attended a Florida
fundraiser earlier in the day, and arranged to return to the state
for the evening.