The Democratic presumptive US presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama received backing from Iraq’s leadership during a Baghdad visit for his call to pull US combat forces out of Iraq in 2010, upsetting the Bush administration and drawing heated criticism from his rival, Republican Senator John McCain.
Obama’s Iraq stop, including briefings and a helicopter ride above Baghdad with US commander General David Petraeus and meetings with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other government leaders, forced the five-year-old war back to the top of the presidential campaign agenda.
McCain was battling to stay in the campaign spotlight as Obama’s travels drew huge media attention at home and abroad. The four-term Arizona senator, appearing wrong-footed by the Iraq developments, hotly disagreed on troop withdrawals saying any pullout “must be based on conditions on the ground,” not arbitrary timelines.
Iraq — the third destination on the foreign tour largely aimed at bolstering Obama’s foreign policy credentials — followed a challenge from McCain, who complained that Obama was wrong to plan for troop withdrawals without having visited Iraq since January 2006. McCain has visited Iraq eight times since the war began and says Obama’s foreign policy initiatives are naive and that he is untested.
The deep fissures between McCain and Obama were only deepened when Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabagh, emerged from the Obama-al-Maliki meeting to say: “We are hoping that in 2010 that combat troops will withdraw from Iraq.”
Obama repeatedly has said he wants to have those forces out of the country by the middle of that year.
Iraq’s Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi, said after a subsequent session that Iraqi leaders share “a common interest ... to schedule the withdrawal of American troops.”
“I’d be happy if we reach an agreement to say, for instance, the 31st of December 2010’’ would mark the departure of the last US combat unit, he said, noting the date would depend on security and the pace of training for Iraqi forces. That date would be some seven months later than Obama’s 16-month timeline.
Obama said almost nothing to reporters following him, but promised fuller impressions after he finishes here on Tuesday and heads to Jordan.
Obama was due to arrive in Israel late yesterday. He is to meet with Israeli leaders and, unlike McCain, an avid Israel supporter who visited in March, he will travel to the West Bank for talks with Palestinian leaders, too.
He released a statement late on Monday noting that Iraqis want an “aspirational timeline, with a clear date,” for the departure of US combat forces.
“Prime Minister Maliki told us that while the Iraqi people deeply appreciate the sacrifices of American soldiers, they do not want an open-ended presence of US combat forces. The prime minister said that now is an appropriate time to start to plan for the reorganization of our troops in Iraq — including their numbers and missions. He stated his hope that US combat forces could be out of Iraq in 2010,” Obama said in a joint statement with senators Chuck Hagel, a Republican, and Jack Reed, a Democrat, who accompanied him to the war zone.
The senators also acknowledged a significant decline in violence in Iraq, and said that while their has been some “forward movement” on political progress, reconciliation and economic development, there has not been “nearly enough to bring lasting stability to Iraq.”