Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s visit to Iraq for talks with commanders of a war he long opposed follows the prime minister’s apparent endorsement of his troop withdrawal plan and a shift by the White House away from refusing to discuss that option.
Obama has called for withdrawing U.S. troops at the rate of one or two brigades a month, ending combat operations within 16 months of becoming president. He favors leaving behind a residual force to protect U.S. personnel, train Iraqi security forces and counter attacks by al-Qaida.
The Illinois senator, challenged at every turn on the Iraq issue by Republicans, including presidential rival Sen. John McCain, was expected to arrive in the country amid the controversy over comments by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that were supportive of Obama’s 16-month timetable.
The Iraqi leader’s aides have said his remarks, published in a German magazine, were misunderstood and that he was not taking sides in the U.S. election. Earlier this month, however, al-Maliki said negotiations between his government and the United States on an agreement spelling out a continued role for U.S. forces in Iraq must include some kind of timetable for withdrawing troops from his country.
Last week, the White House said President George W. Bush and al-Maliki had agreed to set a “general time horizon” for bringing home more U.S. troops, a dramatic shift from what had been the administration’s steadfast refusal to talk about any kind of deadline.
Obama was visiting as part of a congressional delegation that includes Sens. Chuck Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska, and Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island —all longtime critics of U.S. involvement in Iraq—after stops in Afghanistan and Kuwait. The delegation met Sunday in Kuwait City with Kuwait’s emir, Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah, and other senior officials, the Kuwait News Agency reported.
In Iraq, Obama was expected to meet with Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander, and al-Maliki. His aides provided few details, however, citing security concerns.
The trip will be Obama’s second to Iraq, but conditions are quite different from when he visited in January 2006. Obama’s first tour was treated as a footnote, while the country was caught in a growing Sunni insurgency and was moving toward a flood of sectarian violence. But the bloodshed has declined significantly since Bush sent thousands more troops last year to help quell the rising violence.
McCain has been critical of Obama’s position on Iraq, saying the decision to pull out should be determined by progress, not a timetable.
He supports the war, and has been critical of some aspects of its handling. But he was a vocal supporter of the decision to send in more troops.
McCain’s foreign policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann, said Obama “is stubbornly adhering to an unconditional withdrawal that places politics above the advice of our military commanders, the success of our troops, and the security of the American people.”
“Barack Obama is wrong to advocate withdrawal at any cost just as he was wrong to oppose the surge that has put victory within reach,” Scheunemann said in a statement.
U.S. commanders have begun withdrawing some of those additional troops and Obama argues they should be sent to Afghanistan, which he says is the “central front” in the fight against terrorism, to reinforce efforts there against a resurgent Taliban and to control spiraling violence.
McCain also supports sending troop reinforcements to Afghanistan.
“There’s starting to be a growing consensus that it’s time for us to withdraw some of our combat troops out of Iraq, deploy them here in Afghanistan, and I think we have to seize that opportunity. Now is the time for us to do it,” Obama said in a CBS News interview broadcast Sunday after a two-hour meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
“I think it’s important for us to begin planning for those brigades now. If we wait until the next administration, it could be a year before we get those additional troops on the ground here in Afghanistan, and I think that would be a mistake,” Obama said in the interview. “I think the situation is getting urgent enough that we have got to start doing something now.”
Obama said he and his colleagues were talking to military and diplomatic leaders as well as Afghanistan’s leaders about whether the U.S. has the right strategy and resources to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaida.
“Our message to the Afghan government is this: We want a strong partnership based on ‘more for more’ - more resources from the United States and NATO, and more action from the Afghan government to improve the lives of the Afghan people,” he said in a joint statement with Hagel and Reed. “We need a sense of urgency and determination.”
“We need urgency because the threat from the Taliban and al-Qaida is growing and we must act; we need determination because it will take time to prevail,” the senators said.
The Afghan presidency relayed only positives from Obama’s remarks.
“Sen. Obama conveyed ... that he is committed to supporting Afghanistan and to continue the war against terrorism with vigor,” said Humayun Hamidzada, Karzai’s spokesman. Democrats and Republicans “are friends of Afghanistan and no matter who wins the U.S. elections, Afghanistan will have a very strong partner in the United States,” he said.
Asked about Obama’s previous criticism of Karzai’s leadership, Hamidzada said Afghanistan was held back by the need to fight terrorism “imposed” on it from outside—an apparent reference to Pakistan, which Karzai accuses of backing the Taliban.
Obama has made Afghanistan a centerpiece of his proposed strategy for dealing with terrorism threats to the United States.
He has said the war in Afghanistan, where Taliban- and al-Qaida-linked militants are resurgent, deserves more troops and attention than the conflict in Iraq.
Earlier Sunday, Obama met and praised U.S. troops as he ate breakfast at a heavily fortified base in the capital.
“To see young people like this who are doing such excellent work, with so much dedication ... it makes you feel good about the country,” Obama said in video footage filmed by the military and obtained by The Associated Press.
U.S. military officials say the number of attacks in eastern Afghanistan, where most of the foreign troops are American, has increased by 40 percent so far in 2008 compared with the same period in 2007.
Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, told the AP on Saturday that after intense U.S. assaults there, al-Qaida may be considering shifting focus to its original home base in Afghanistan, where American casualties are running higher than in Iraq.
Obama has also expressed impatience with the halting efforts of neighboring Pakistan to go after insurgents in its border region, considered a likely hide-out for al-Qaida leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri.
Associated Press writer Fisnik Abrashi in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.