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US presidential hopeful McCain in Baghdad

Republican presidential candidate John McCain arrived in Baghdad on Sunday to assess improved security in Iraq attributed to a build-up of 30,000 extra US troops of which he has been a strong supporter.

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US Republican presidential candidate John McCain arrived in Iraq on Sunday for talks with senior American officials on the first leg of a tour taking him to the Middle East and Europe.

His trip is aimed at burnishing his senior statesman credentials while Democratic rivals brawl back home.

The Arizona senator, who touts his foreign affairs experience over Democratic candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, is leading a congressional delegation which will meet the leaders of Jordan, Israel, Britain and France, according to his campaign office in Washington.

In Baghdad, he is due to meet the American ambassador Ryan Crocker, and to see firsthand the effects of the troop "surge" for which he has been a fervent advocate even as US public support for the war in Iraq slumped.

McCain, who earlier this month sealed the Republican nomination after a series of primary victories, is joined on his trip by independent Senator Joe Lieberman and Republican Lindsey Graham, two staunch supporters in his White House bid.

The delegation was to meet with US military officials and Iraq's leaders to assess the success of the surge strategy that deployed more soldiers to Iraq, the Washington Post reported on Saturday.

Observers said the trip will give several heads of state a closer look at one of the three candidates battling to take over the White House in January 2009.

"The people he's going to meet with are going to try to find out from him what he would do as president," Jim Steinberg, a dean of public affairs at the University of Texas, told the Post.

McCain, who has staked his presidential hopes on Iraq, was making the latest of several trips to the war-ravaged country where 3,988 US troops have been killed since the March 2003 invasion.

He stressed that the overseas trip is not political but part of his role as the top Republican in the Democrat-led Senate Armed Services Committee.

"I do want to emphasise again that the three of us are going as members of the Armed Services Committee," McCain was quoted as saying in Saturday's New York Times.

"And we will emphasise that at every stop."

Yet there were political elements that were hard to ignore.

McCain's campaign will likely use the meetings with Jordan's King Abdullah, Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy to convey that the senator is at home on the world stage.

"He will not talk about the presidential race. But to the degree that there are pictures of John McCain standing on the world stage next to leaders, he will wear that well," a Republican Party strategist said in the Washington Post.

"Does that resonate well with people back home? Sure it does."

McCain is also due to hold a fundraiser for 1,000 dollars per plate in London, media have reported, with Congress being reimbursed for the political parts of the trip.

The Vietnam war veteran and former prisoner of war recently likened himself to Britain's wartime prime minister Winston Churchill in a new ad laying out a hawkish foreign policy of "no surrender" to US foes including Islamic extremists.

In January he reaffirmed his support for the deployment of thousands of additional US troops in Iraq.

"When I raise my hand and vote to send young men and women, American men and women into harm's way and fight a war, I am committing to accomplishing the mission," McCain said, putting himself in stark contrast to Democrat candidates Obama and Clinton who are seeking troop drawdowns from Iraq.

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