( AP )- Fresh off his eighth Iraq visit, Sen. John McCain declared Monday that "we are succeeding" and said he wouldn't change course - even as the U.S. death toll rose to 4,000 and the war entered its sixth year.
To underscore his view of the stakes in Iraq, the certain Republican presidential nominee twice referenced a recent audio tape from Osama bin Laden in which the al- Qaida leader urged followers to join the al- Qaida fight in Iraq and called the country "the greatest opportunity and the biggest task."
"For the first time, I have seen Osama bin Laden and General (David) Petraeus in agreement, and, that is, a central battleground in the battle against al- Qaida is in Iraq today. And that's what bin Laden was saying and that's what General Petraeus is saying and that's what I'm saying, my friends," McCain said.
"And my Democrat opponents who want to pull out of Iraq refuse to understand what's being said and what's happening - and that is the central battleground is Iraq in this struggle against radical Islamic extremism," he added. McCain also said Democratic rivals Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton were naive and "dead wrong" to want to withdraw troops.
"We're succeeding. I don't care what anybody says. I've seen the facts on the ground," the Arizona senator insisted a day after a roadside bomb in Baghdad killed four U.S. soldiers and rockets pounded the U.S.-protected Green Zone there, and a wave of attacks left at least 61 Iraqis dead nationwide. The events transpired as bin Laden called on the people of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to "help in support of their mujahedeen brothers in Iraq, which is the greatest opportunity and the biggest task."
Despite all that, McCain told reporters: "I don't think I would change the strategy now unless General Petraeus recommended it. I think he's trusted by the American people, the president and by me. And General Petraeus again showed me facts on the ground where the surge is succeeding."
Democrats took issue with his remarks and cast his candidacy as a repeat of President Bush's tenure.
"As Americans mark another somber milestone in the war in Iraq, John McCain continues his pattern of parroting the Bush administration's misleading rhetoric on the war," Democratic Party spokeswoman Karen Finney said in a statement.
In the midst of a western fundraising swing after a week abroad, including visits to Iraq, the Middle East and Europe, the Arizona senator didn't mention the grim casualty milestone or the last weeks fifth anniversary of the conflict as he spoke to veterans and others at a stuffy Veterans of Foreign Wars building during a town-hall style campaign event outside of San Diego.
"I've commented on hundreds of occasions of the sacrifice the great and brave young Americans have made in Iraq and elsewhere in the world in the struggle against radical Islamic extremism," McCain told reporters afterward. He said a bracelet he always wears with the name of Matthew Stanley, who was killed in Iraq, is a symbol not just of his sacrifice but also of Stanley's 4,000 fallen comrades.
"My thoughts and my prayers go out to those families every day," McCain added.
Also left unsaid during the event was the fact that 2007 was the war's deadliest year with 901 American troop deaths. That was when Bush took McCain's advice and sent thousands more U.S. troops to Iraq to quell violence in Baghdad. McCain long had called for such a strategy shift, and he effectively linked his presidential candidacy to the war last year even as public support for it plummeted.
"I'm not painting to you the most rosy scenario but I am telling you, compared to a year ago, before we started this surge, and with this great general, one of the great generals in American history, General David Petraeus , that we are succeeding in Iraq," McCain told his audience.
Asked later if he was offering the war-weary public any different path forward in Iraq than Bush, McCain reached back to the past.
"I'm offering them the record of having objected strenuously to a failed strategy for nearly four years. That I argued against and fought against and said that the secretary of defense of my own party, and my own president, I had no confidence in. That's how far I went in advocating the new strategy that is succeeding," McCain told reporters.