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Obama Reaffirms Iraq Withdrawal Plan, Sparking a Fresh Round of McCain Camp Criticism

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Barack Obama is strongly reaffirming his stance on pulling combat troops out of Iraq in his first 16 months in office, if elected president, emboldened by the Iraqi government saying last week it supports a timetable for U.S. forces to leave.

"The call by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki for a timetable for the removal of American troops from Iraq presents an enormous opportunity," Obama wrote today in a New York Times op-ed. "We should seize this moment to begin the phased redeployment of combat troops that I have long advocated, and that is needed for long-term success in Iraq and the security interests of the United States."

Maliki's comments have left Obama increasing focused on the withdrawal part of his Iraq strategy, instead of the troops he would leave there to maintain stability, which he had emphasized in the last few weeks as the general election has started. Obama still has not said how large of a force he would leave in Iraq, as ten of thousands of the forces in Iraq are not "combat troops" and could remain in the country even if Obama removed all combat forces.

But his emphasis on withdrawal is likely to quiet critics who said he appeared to be changing his position on getting troops out of Iraq.

"My core position, which is that we need a timetable for withdraw ... is now a position that is held by the Iraqi government itself," he told reporters on his campaign plane Saturday night. "...John McCain and George Bush both said that if Iraq as a sovereign government stated that it was time for us to start withdrawing our troops they would respect the wishes of that sovereign government."

Obama, who initially opposed the surge in U.S. forces in Iraq that has helped reduce violence there, defended that position in the op-ed.

"In the 18 months since President Bush announced the surge, our troops have performed heroically in bringing down the level of violence. New tactics have protected the Iraqi population, and the Sunni tribes have rejected Al Qaeda -- greatly weakening its effectiveness," he wrote. "But the same factors that led me to oppose the surge still hold true. The strain on our military has grown, the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated and we've spent nearly $200 billion more in Iraq than we had budgeted. Iraq's leaders have failed to invest tens of billions of dollars in oil revenues in rebuilding their own country, and they have not reached the political accommodation that was the stated purpose of the surge."

McCain aides, in a conference call, blasted Obama for initially opposing the surge.

"He came out in full force against the troop surge," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a top McCain adviser. Graham added, "Iraq would have crumbled, al-Qaeda would have declared victory" had the U.S. not pursued the strategy, which McCain supported.

Randy Scheunemann, a McCain foreign policy adviser, said that Obama's op-ed laid out his Iraq vision too precisely, and before the senator from Illinois even takes the trip there he is scheduled to make this month. McCain and his aides have long blasted Obama for not visiting Iraq over the last two years.

Obama's op-ed "leaves one to question why he is even going to go," Schenemann said.

The two camps are becoming increasingly fiery on the issue. Obama, talking to reporters in San Diego, dryly mocked McCain.

"I will recall the visit he made last year in which he was surrounded by helicopters and SWAT teams and he came back and reported how safe everything was in Baghdad. And I don't think that that was indicative of what was actually happening on the ground at that time," Obama said.

He added: "John McCain has been in Congress 25 years, no doubt about that. If this is a longevity measure, then John McCain wins. On the other hand, before we went into Iraq, I knew the difference between Shia and Sunni," referring to a gaffe this March when McCain conflated the two Muslim sects.

Tucker Bounds, a McCain spokesman, responded, "If Barack Obama believes that visiting Iraq and meeting with commanders will not give him any new perspective, then we can only assume that's he's just going to smile for the cameras."

By Web Politics Editor  |  July 14, 2008; 2:27 PM ET
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