BAGHDAD – Vice President Dick Cheney on Monday made a surprise visit to Baghdad, where he pledged that U.S. forces would “not quit before the job is done” and said that a massive troop buildup had achieved “phenomenal” improvements in security.
At sunset Monday, however, a suicide bomber killed at least 40 people and injured more than 50 when she blew herself up in a crowded pedestrian area near a Shiite Muslim shrine in the southern holy city of Karbala, according to government and hospital officials. Among the victims were several Iranian pilgrims who’d come to worship at the Imam Hussein shrine, one of Islam’s most sacred sites.
And the U.S. military announced the deaths of two soldiers who were killed Monday when their Humvee struck a roadside bomb north of Baghdad, bringing the number of American troop deaths to at least 3,990 since the war began.
Cheney told a news conference in Baghdad that the invasion of Iraq five years ago this week was a “difficult, challenging, but nonetheless successful endeavor.” However, he said obstacles remain and the decision on whether to begin reducing forces depends on political reconciliation and the ability to preserve the hard-won security gains of the past year.
Cheney’s trip overlapped with a visit by Republican presidential candidate John McCain, who arrived Sunday for a two-day fact-finding mission for the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Both Cheney and McCain have been strong backers of the “surge” strategy, which sent 30,000 more American troops to Iraq in an effort to drive out Islamist extremists and reduce the sectarian violence that has claimed thousands of lives and transformed Baghdad into a maze of walled-off, segregated neighborhoods.
The year-old surge has helped reduce bloodshed throughout Iraq – with the number of attacks down by more than half – though many Iraqis view the lull in violence as temporary.
Cheney spent Monday in a choreographed hopscotch, moving at least six times for high-level meetings. In the fortress-like Green Zone compound, which houses the U.S. and Iraqi headquarters, he met Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki; Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq; and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker. Cheney intended to press Iraqi leaders to pass an oil law that could help persuade international energy firms to invest in production, U.S. officials said. He also was urging Iraqis to stick to their goal of October elections.