(Adds McCain comments)
By Steve Holland
SPRINGFIELD, Pa., March 14 (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate John McCain said on Friday he fears that anti-American extremists might attempt spectacular attacks in Iraq to try to tilt the U.S. election against him.
McCain, at a town hall meeting in this Philadelphia suburb, was asked if he had concerns that al Qaeda or other groups in Iraq might intensify their operations to try to increase casualties in the autumn and influence the November election.
"Yes, I worry about it," McCain said. "And I know they pay attention because of the intercepts we have of their communications ... The hardest thing in warfare is to counter someone or a group of individuals who are willing to take their own lives in order to take others."
He said such groups could still mount strong attacks.
"We still have the most lethal explosive devices coming across the border from Iran into Iraq. We still have suicide bombers landing at the airport in Damascus and coming into Iraq as we speak. So I would not be surprised if they make an attempt. I believe we can counter most of it as we are countering them," he said.
At his campaign event and subsequent news conference, McCain also criticized U.S. Senate colleagues, and Republicans in particular, for not joining him and 28 other senators in a one-year moratorium on controversial spending projects, known as earmarks that benefit specific cities or towns and that McCain considers wasteful.
The Arizona senator said Americans wanted to eliminate wasteful spending and "it shows the last place in America where they don't get it is Washington, D.C."
The Senate on Thursday night voted 71-29 against the moratorium. McCain and Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama, an Illinois senator, and Hillary Clinton, a New York senator, all voted for the legislation.
McCain, who must try to win a third straight term for Republicans to succeed unpopular President George W. Bush, offered some criticism of Bush himself.
SERVE, DON'T SHOP
Asked why American civilians have never been asked for personal sacrifices to help the war effort, McCain said: "After 9/11, I think that we made a mistake by telling Americans they should go on a trip or go shopping. I think we should've told Americans to join the military, the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps -- all the organizations that allow people to serve this nation."
Bush in 2001 called on Americans to shop and travel as a way to repair damage to the U.S. economy wrought by the 9/11 attacks, but had also called on people to join service organizations.
McCain is a stalwart supporter of Bush's troop build-up in Iraq, while sharply critical of the way the war was managed until the increase, and his political fortunes have improved as casualties have declined in Iraq in recent months.
He disagrees strongly with campaign pledges by Clinton and Obama to withdraw U.S. troops speedily if either of them are elected in November.
McCain, soon to depart on a Middle East and Europe trip with two Senate colleagues, said recent deadly attacks in Iraq show that al Qaeda in Iraq is not defeated.
He said is concerned "they might be able to carry out some spectacular suicide attacks but we do have them on the run." (To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/ (Editing by Alan Elsner)