Sen. John McCain is making his eighth trip to Iraq. If the Republican presidential nominee has his way in November, he will be making many more as president.
"We could have a presence here for many years," McCain told ABC News. "We've been in Germany for 60 years. But the point is if we can reduce and eliminate American casualties, then Americans will be satisfied with an American presence here. If the casualties continue, their frustrations will continue and they will be very dissatisfied to say the very least. They are frustrated because of four years of failure. For four years we failed. Now this new strategy -- the surge -- is working and I hope they'll understand the progress we're making."
But top military officials and diplomats say the troop surge is just one reason for the dip in attacks and casualties.
After a summer reign of terror by Islamic extremists in Anbar province, tens of thousands of Sunni insurgents -- many who had spent years fighting Americans -- suddenly switched sides.
This "Sunni awakening" led the coalition forces to hire more than 90,000 men into a community watch brigade now known as the Sons of Iraq.
They are paid $10 a day to man checkpoints in their neighborhoods -- a huge help to Iraqi security forces.
In addition to this unexpected flip, Shiite cleric and militia leader Moqtada al Sadr recently renewed a cease-fire.
U.S. Commanding Gen. David Petraeus told ABC News that it's a "serious concern" that America's sudden allies could become enemies just as easily.
McCain disagrees. "I don't think so," he said. "Unless they feel that they have no other choice. There are problems. The government is not giving [the Sons of Iraq] as much support as we'd like to see in material and resources. There's still some very high unemployment numbers -- 50 percent in Anbar. But I don't accept the notion that they would willingly go back to an al Qaeda that terrorized them."
On the subject of Iran. he said, "They're sending the most lethal explosive devices across the border and killing young Americans. There's no doubt about that. I would do everything in my power to restrain Iran in every possible way and that does not mean a declaration of war. Nor does it mean combat. But if they acquire nuclear weapons -- as they are on the road to -- I agree with the president that we cannot allow them to have nuclear weapons."
Despite the American stance, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to visit Baghdad earlier this month.
It was the first such visit by any Iranian leader and the red-carpet welcome was a sharp contrast to the furtive visits by President Bush.
McCain refused to acknowledge the apparent snub of U.S. policy.
"There were Sunnis that boycotted meeting with him," he said. "There were religious leaders that refused to meet with him. Those are signs that many Iraqi people are not fond of too close a relationship with Iran."
Traveling with Sens. Lindsey Graham and Joseph Lieberman, McCain called this visit a fact-finding mission for the Armed Services Committee, not a campaign photo op.
But the Arizona senator mentioned his opponents by name as he praised a strategy he supported.
"Sens. [Hillary] Clinton and [Barack] Obama said the surge would never work," he said. "It's worked. Now they say that [the Iraqis] can't function politically. They're functioning politically. Very poorly. Two steps forward, one step back."
One indication of the slow progress here is the new flag. Iraqi leaders finally agreed on a design … after 3½ years of debate.