By DAVID ESPO, AP Special CorrespondentTue Mar 27, 11:10 PM ET
Republican presidential contender John McCain (news, bio, voting record) 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 said.
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.
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