BAGHDAD -- Vice President Dick Cheney, an architect of the U.S-led invasion of Iraq, on Monday hailed "phenomenal changes" in Iraq on a visit to assess the success of a troop build-up five years after the war began.
Cheney arrived as Republican candidate John McCain, who will be the Republican choice in November's presidential election, was meeting Iraqi leaders as part of a Senate Armed Services Committee fact-finding mission.
"Especially significant is to be able to return this week to mark the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the campaign that liberated the people of Iraq from Saddam Hussein's tyranny," Cheney said after meeting Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Cheney said he sensed "phenomenal changes" since his last visit 10 months ago and described security gains as "dramatic".
Like McCain, Cheney is in Iraq as part of a wider tour to the Middle East. Cheney will also visit Saudi Arabia, Jerusalem, the Palestinian territories, Turkey and Oman on a nine-day tour.
Both men have been staunch supporters of a U.S. troop build-up that Washington says helped drag Iraq back from the brink of all-out sectarian civil war between majority Shi'ite and minority Sunni Muslims who were dominant under Saddam.
"I'm happy to say Americans are more and more understanding of the success of this strategy of the surge," McCain, referring to the build-up, told U.S. soldiers in volatile Mosul in Iraq's north on Sunday, according to a video released by the military.
Cheney was met on his arrival in Baghdad by General David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. He last visited Baghdad in May 2007, a month before the deployment of an extra 30,000 troops was completed.
The U.S. military says attacks across Iraq have fallen by 60 percent since last June, when the troop build-up was completed, but says a spike in violence since January is not a trend.
Neighborhood security units set up by mainly Sunni Arab tribal leaders and a ceasefire ordered by anti-U.S. Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr for his Mehdi Army militia have also contributed to bringing down violence, the U.S. military says.
Violence remains a daily threat despite the security gains.
Roadside bombs and a minibus packed with explosives killed four people, including a policeman, and wounded 13 others in four attacks across Baghdad, police said. Neither Cheney nor McCain were in the area at the time.
A senior U.S. administration official said before Cheney's trip that Middle East leaders would be interested in seeing what conclusions he draws now compared with a year ago and that it was expected he would say progress is being made.
Among the political issues Cheney is discussing with Iraq's leaders are a stalled hydrocarbon law, one of Washington's so-called reconciliation benchmarks, U.S. officials said.
The law will share revenues from Iraq's vast oil reserves, the world's third-largest, but remains blocked because of reluctance to compromise among Iraq's political blocs.
Cheney and Maliki also discussed security and the future relationship between Washington and Baghdad after the U.N. mandate for the U.S. presence expires at the end of 2008, with talks on that pact to include the presence of U.S. troops.
"This visit is important because it comes at a time when there's a great deal of progress taking place in Iraq," Maliki said through a translator after meeting Cheney.
Cheney and McCain were not expected to meet in Iraq.
McCain arrived on Sunday and has held talks with Maliki and other leaders. As well as Mosul, which U.S. commanders regard as al Qaeda's last urban stronghold in Iraq, he has toured Haditha in western Anbar, once Iraq's most dangerous province.
Television footage showed McCain, surrounded by U.S. soldiers, buying a soft drink at a Haditha market.
He made an embarrassing gaffe on his last trip a year ago when, on a similar market tour, he said Americans were not being told the "good news" about the war in Iraq.
© Reuters 2007. All rights reserved.