Obama May Consider Slowing Iraq Withdrawal

Barack Obama said during a campaign stop in Fargo, N.D., that he wants to "end this war, responsibly, deliberately but decisively."
Barack Obama said during a campaign stop in Fargo, N.D., that he wants to "end this war, responsibly, deliberately but decisively." (By Jae C. Hong -- Associated Press)
By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 4, 2008

FARGO, N.D., July 3 -- Sen. Barack Obama raised the possibility of slowing a promised gradual, 16-month withdrawal from Iraq if he is elected president, saying that Thursday he will consult with military commanders on an upcoming trip to the region and "continue to refine" his proposals.

"My 16-month timeline, if you examine everything I've said, was always premised on making sure our troops were safe," Obama told reporters as his campaign plane landed in North Dakota, a state no Democratic presidential candidate has carried since 1964. "And my guiding approach continues to be that we've got to make sure that our troops are safe, and that Iraq is stable. And I'm going to continue to gather information to find out whether those conditions still hold."

In a second, hastily convened news conference, Obama insisted that his policies have not changed, and that he has "not equivocated" or is not "searching for maneuvering room" on Iraq. Consultations with commanders in the coming weeks will be focused more on the size of U.S. forces needed to train and equip Iraqi military and police units, as well as maintaining a "counterterrorism strike force" to prevent al-Qaeda from making a comeback, he said.

"Let me be as clear as I can be: I intend to end this war," he said. "My first day in office, I will bring the Joint Chiefs of Staff in, and I will give them a new mission. That is to end this war, responsibly, deliberately but decisively."

Thus far, he added, he has seen nothing to contradict his belief that one to two combat brigades could be pulled out each month over 16 months.

Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has long said the nation "must be as careful getting out of Iraq as it was reckless going in." During his hard-fought primary fight with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, he stuck to that 16-month timeline, building support for his candidacy among antiwar voters leery of the depth of Clinton's commitment to a pullout.

But since Obama secured the nomination, a series of pronouncements have helped ease him toward the political center. He backed a compromise on warrantless wiretapping, criticized a Supreme Court decision preventing the death penalty for child-rapists and did not criticize another decision scuttling the District of Columbia's handgun ban.

Thursday's comments were his most extensive on perhaps the most important foreign policy issue of the campaign, the future of U.S. military involvement in Iraq. It came during a swing through traditionally Republican states that Obama believes he can put into play this fall.

He stressed that he still thinks it would be "a strategic error for us to maintain a long-term occupation in Iraq" when conditions in Afghanistan have worsened, al-Qaeda has been regrouping in Pakistan and U.S. resources have been strained as the nation spends $10 billion to $12 billion a month in Iraq "that we desperately need here at home." A pledge to end the war elicited applause as he held a town hall meeting here under an umbrella of poplar trees at Yunker Farm.

But, he told reporters: "I have always said I would listen to the commanders on the ground. I have always said that the pace of withdrawal would be dictated by the safety and security of our troops and the need to maintain stability. That assessment has not changed. When I go to Iraq and have time to talk to the commanders on the ground, I'm sure I'll have more information and will continue to refine my policies."

Obama also suggested that aides to Sen. John McCain, the Republican candidate, had been working to create the impression "we were changing our policy when we haven't." And Republicans did not hesitate to pounce Thursday.

"There appears to be no issue that Barack Obama is not willing to reverse himself on for the sake of political expedience," said Republican National Committee spokesman Alex Conant. "Obama's Iraq problem undermines the central premise of his candidacy and shows him to be a typical politician."

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