By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 31, 2008
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) spent Friday on the defensive from rival Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) after mistakenly saying the United States had drawn down its troops in Iraq to pre-buildup levels.
In comments to reporters on Thursday, McCain said, "I can tell you that [the troop increase] is succeeding. I can look you in the eye and tell you it's succeeding. We have drawn down to pre-surge levels. Basra, Mosul and now Sadr City are quiet and it's long and it's hard and it's tough and there will be setbacks."
In fact, as the Obama campaign was quick to point out, the troop level in Iraq is at about 155,000, well above the 130,000 that would mark a return to levels preceding the "surge." Lt. Gen. Carter Ham, operations chief for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in February that the Pentagon's goal is to reduce troop levels to 140,000 -- still above the pre-buildup levels.
Democrats seized on McCain's comment, saying in a statement released by the Democratic National Committee that it shows he either "doesn't know the facts on the ground in Iraq or he is continuing the Bush Administration's pattern of intentionally misleading the public."
McCain, speaking to reporters in Milwaukee, refused to acknowledge a mistake, saying that "I said we have drawn down. And we have drawn down."
His advisers said the flap amounted to nothing more than "nitpicking" about "verb tenses."
"It is the essence of semantics," said a frustrated Randy Scheunemann, McCain's top foreign policy adviser, on a conference call organized by the campaign. "We're having this call about a verb tense."
The Republican National Committee also joined in, saying in a statement that "this all goes to show that Obama would sooner go on the attack than go to Iraq."
In Montana later in the day, Obama refused to back off, saying that "anyone running for commander in chief should know better."
"His campaign said it amounts to 'nitpicking,' " Obama told reporters. "Well I don't think tens of thousands of American troops amounts to nitpicking. . . . It's time for a debate that's based on the truth, and I can't think of anything more important than how many Americans are in harm's way."
McCain's comments about Mosul being "quiet" have also been criticized. On the day he made them, 30 Iraqis were killed by suicide bombings in the Mosul area.