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Candidates Refine Their Stances on a Changing Iraq

By Anne E. Kornblut and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 9, 2008

POWDER SPRINGS, Ga., July 8 -- Sen. Barack Obama on Tuesday dismissed criticism that he is abandoning his principles to move toward the political center, saying he has been consistent in embracing moderate views on several issues, especially his belief that pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq must be done "carefully."

Obama addressed what he called "this whole notion that I am shifting to the center, or that I am flip-flopping," with a firm denial that he has tilted his emphasis away from swiftly bringing the war to an end. "Don't be confused: I am going to bring the Iraq war to a close when I am president of the United States of America," Obama said.

The remarks came as both candidates scrambled to clarify their visions for Iraq in the face of changing events on the ground. Sen. John McCain, who has repeatedly derided calls for a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, suddenly found himself confronted with the American-backed Iraqi leadership raising the prospect of exactly that.

For the first time, Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki said Monday in a statement that the two countries should consider deciding the future of U.S. troops with "a memorandum of understanding to put a timetable on their withdrawal."

On Tuesday, McCain's top foreign policy adviser declined to criticize Maliki, and his campaign sought to portray those comments as consistent with the Republican nominee's long-standing position. "Senator McCain has always said that conditions on the ground -- including the security threats posed by extremists and terrorists, and the ability of Iraqi forces to meet those threats -- would be key determinants in U.S. force levels," senior adviser Randy Scheunemann said.

McCain continued to express confidence that any withdrawal would come after victory in Iraq. Campaigning in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, he told reporters he is "confident" that Maliki's decision-making "will be directly related to the situation on the ground, just as they have always said. And since we are succeeding and then I am convinced, as I have said before, we can withdraw and withdraw with honor, not according to a set timetable."

Their party nominations in hand, Obama and McCain have calibrated their firm stands on Iraq to adapt to changing events on the ground, namely a post-"surge" reduction in violence, to target a more centrist audience. Obama plans to visit Baghdad in the weeks ahead, and will be eager to demonstrate a facility with the complexities there without succumbing to the "flip-flop" charge that dogged Democratic nominee Sen. John F. Kerry four years ago.

Maliki's comments suggest that there are trapdoors for McCain on Iraq as well. In speeches, town hall meetings, interviews and campaign commercials, he has said a timetable would provide terrorists the knowledge of how long they have to wait until U.S. troops are gone.

McCain has repeatedly said that setting a date for withdrawal would lead to "chaos, genocide and we will be back with greater sacrifice." And he accused both Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of endangering Americans by advocating a specific timetable for withdrawal.

"It would be an unconscionable act of betrayal, a stain on our character as a great nation, if we were to walk away from the Iraqi people and consign them to the horrendous violence, ethnic cleansing and possibly genocide that would follow a reckless, irresponsible and premature withdrawal," he said in a California speech.

Obama made his remarks in response to a question at a town hall meeting from a self-declared "reformed Republican" who sympathetically encouraged the senator to set the record straight on his Iraq position. Obama spent most of last week explaining his remark that he would "continue to refine" his Iraq proposals -- which was widely interpreted as a softening of his promise to end the war and as a general-election shift to the center.

Obama, egged on by a raucous audience, said on Tuesday that he has always held centrist views -- not only on Iraq but also on faith and what he called "personal responsibility."

"The people who say this apparently haven't been listening to me," he said. "And, I have to say, some of them are my friends on the left and some of the media. I am somebody who is no doubt progressive." He listed issues in which he views himself as progressive -- on providing universal health-care coverage, increased teacher pay -- then said that on other matters, he believes in thinking more creatively about nongovernmental solutions.

On Iraq, Obama declared unequivocally his commitment to withdrawal. And he said that he has always advocated caution.

"I have also consistently said, once we were in, we had to be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in, because once you get in you've got to make sure our troops are safe," he said. "You've got to make sure the country doesn't collapse, so what I've called for is a phased withdrawal, a phased redeployment."

He continued: "Now, assuming that I take office in January, then that means that we would still have our troops there for about two more years from now. There's nothing rushed about that. . . . When I hear John McCain saying we can't surrender, we can't wave the white flag -- nobody's talking about surrender. We're talking about common sense."

Obama said: "I am going to bring this war to an end."

Shear reported from the McCain campaign in Washington and Pittsburgh.

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