McCain's Visits to Iraq -- from the Ridiculous to the Maligned

03/16/2008 09:19 pm 21:19:28 | Updated May 25, 2011

John McCain returned to Baghdad today, as part of his major Mideast trip, to inspect the progress of the surge, and declare it good. There was just one hangup. His favorite market had been taken over by Sadr's forces.

Remember his visit to the Shorja market and the happy calmness he found last April -- as helicopters twirled overhead and hundreds of troops protected him? Meanwhile, Rep. Mike Pence was comparing it to a farm fair in the Midwest and Lindsay Graham was bragging about getting a good price on some rugs.

Lindsay went along on the latest trip, too. Maybe he was just looking to pick up some more rugs for a few friends. But sorry, no: market off-limits. Even the best Army money can buy might not be enough to protect them. Damn that spike in bombings and killings this week.

So let's return to that April 2007 visit here.

Here is an excerpt from a chapter on the visit in my new book, So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President -- Failed on Iraq.

Unwilling to play tourist during Sen. John McCain's open-air stroll in Baghdad, reporters quickly revealed the extraordinary security that surrounded this purported "typical day" at the Shorja market.

Then, over the next two days, they went back and interviewed some of the merchants, who have thoroughly repudiated the sunny accounts of the visit offered by McCain and his congressional sidekicks.

In short order, McCain went from the ridiculous to the maligned.

But the most revealing and chilling episode featured Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.). He was widely quoted in the initial accounts declaring that he found the Shorja bazaar "like a normal outdoor market in Indiana in the summertime." Pence later described one rug merchant who kept patting his heart and refused to take his money: "His eyes, like so many others, radiated with affection and appreciation." Pence said he was "deeply moved" by this.

Well, a National Public Radio reporter returned and found that grateful merchant--and uncovered a quite different story. The carpet seller, Ahmed al-Kurdi, recalled for NPR: "I didn't accept the money. I said to myself, 'they must be guests, so I must give them a good impression of Iraqis.' After all, we are occuped by these Americans -- and they are accompanied by a lot of U.S. security."

Al-Kurdi then said that actually he favored the insurgents: "We are not against the resistance. We are with them. However, he who claims to be with the resistance must fight the occupiers, not the Iraqi people. A huge number of U.S forces came yesterday. Why didn't they shoot at them -- instead of harming us?"

So: Maybe patting the heart was a secret signal to open fire on visiting Americans?

The NPR reporter talked to another merchant who said he always keeps an employee stationed outside his shop to watch for cars carrying suicide bombers heading their way. Just like in Indiana?

Well, at least Rep. Pence got a good deal on those rugs.

It turns out snipers did open fire at the market shortly after McCain and friends left. Then it emerged today in press reports that 21 workers or merchants in that same market had been found bound and executed north of Baghdad. Was this a retaliatory action or just a example of a REAL "typical day" in Iraq?

On Tuesday, The New York Times and other news outlets published the results of their own interviews with merchants at that market, almost uniformly hostile to McCain or his views. The Washington Postt added its own quotes in the same vein today, plus some startling statistics on violence in Iraq in this supposedly improving "surge" environment.

A U.S. military official on Tuesday described McCain's comments about Baghdad's safety as "a bit of hyperbole," according to the Post. "Things are indeed better in Baghdad, for now," he asserted. "It's just a very fragile situation that could turn at any moment."

The Post pictured a merchant at the market named Hassan shutting down his shop early, worried about the threat of kidnapping. About two weeks ago, "thugs entered a neighboring shop at around this time, handcuffed the owner and took all his money," the Post reported. "Around the warren of shops in Shorja market, he was considered lucky. 'They usually ask for ransom, and then behead the hostage,' said Hassan."
Greg Mitchell's So Wrong for So Long has been hailed by our own Arianna, plus Bill Moyers, Glenn Greenwald and Paul Rieckhoff. It features a foreword by Joe Galloway and a preface by Bruce Springsteen.