ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
With his presidential campaign faltering, Senator John McCain spent the Fourth of July with U.S. forces in Baghdad. Polls show McCain's strong support of the war is costing him among potential voters. The Arizona Republican spoke today at a celebration marking two milestones: more than 160 service members became U.S. citizens and 500 reenlisted.
As NPR's Rachel Martin reports from Baghdad, McCain told them that the country is behind them.
RACHEL MARTIN: Senator McCain is on familiar turf in Iraq. He's been here several times since the start of the war. Today, he spoke in front of hundreds of troops in one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces. U.S. soldiers sat on folding chairs set up in the middle of the marble floor. Brand new American flags tucked under each chair. They stood and took the oath of citizenship.
Unidentified Man: I hereby declare…
Unidentified Group: I hereby declare…
Unidentified Man: …on oath…
Unidentified Group: …on oath…
MARTIN: One hundred and sixty-one soldiers from 54 different countries promised to support and defend the U.S. constitution.
Unidentified Group: That I will take this obligation freely…
Unidentified Man: Without any mental reservation…
Unidentified Group: …without any mental reservation…
Unidentified Man: …or purpose of evasion…
Unidentified Group: …or purpose of evasion…
Unidentified Man: So help me God.
Unidentified Group: So help me God.
(Soundbite of crowd cheering)
MARTIN: General David Petraeus, the commander in charge of the U.S. forces in Iraq, gave the opening remarks at the ceremony. But the big draw was Senator John McCain. Soldiers here are well aware of his more than 20 years as a naval airman, and the five and a half he spent as a prisoner of war. He told the troops there is no place he'd rather be on this Fourth of July, and that he understands their sacrifice.
Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential candidate): Yet the stakes in Iraq are so high, not only for the people of this country and the region, but for the American people. So we have asked you to do more than we should expect of. And here you are, reenlisted, so that we might continue to rule our land with courage and patriotism in our hour of need.
MARTIN: The senator has faced tough criticism at home over his steadfast support of the war in Iraq even within his own party, and he touched on these divisions.
Sen. McCAIN: The war in which you have fought has divided the American people, but it has divided no American in our admiration for you. We all honor you, we are all - those who have supported the decision that placed you in harm's way and those who opposed it.
MARTIN: McCain said that everyone was also united and humbled by the commitment of the new Americans here. Twenty-six-year-old Army Specialist Scott Wedge(ph) was in the audience watching his wife, Rosa(ph), take the oath. It was an emotional day for the couple. Rosa has been trying for two years to get her citizenship and this is her second tour in Iraq. Wedge says this day has been a long time coming.
Specialist SCOTT WEDGE (U.S. Army): It should be a quick process. It should be - because everyone deserves it. I mean, they're standing up. They're fighting. I mean, our country was based upon immigrants. Our ancestors were all immigrants somehow. And here we all are, just another generation.
MARTIN: Rosa crossed the Mexican border with her family when she was 6 years old. All they had when they arrived was a beat-up pick up and what they could fit into it. She says joining the Army just made sense.
Ms. ROSA MARTINEZ (U.S. Army): Since America has given - well, me as an immigrant, a lot of opportunities - being in Iraq was kind of like returning that favor.
MARTIN: But in his remarks, Senator John McCain made clear that the reverse was actually true, that soldiers like Rosa Martinez, fighting in Iraq, begin their lives as naturalized citizens today with America already in their debt.
Rachel Martin, NPR News, Baghdad.
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