After Visit, Obama Defends Iraq Plan

Sen. Barack Obama says there have been security gains in Iraq, but the country needs a political solution. Obama is continuing his overseas trip with stops in Jordan and Israel.Video by AP
By Dan Balz and Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 23, 2008

AMMAN, Jordan, July 22 -- Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama on Tuesday defended his proposal to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq over a 16-month period despite opposition to any timeline from the top U.S. commander there, Gen. David H. Petraeus. More forces are needed to combat a perilous situation in Afghanistan, Obama said.

"I believe that the best way to support Iraqi sovereignty and to encourage the Iraqis to stand up is through the responsible redeployment of our combat brigades," Obama told reporters after completing a four-day visit to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Looking ahead to meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders Wednesday, the senator from Illinois pledged that, if elected president, he would provide "sustained energy and focus" to help forge a peace agreement ending their conflict. But he noted that "it's unrealistic to expect that a U.S. president alone can suddenly snap his fingers about bringing about peace in this region."

Obama flew to Israel late Tuesday after a meeting and dinner with Jordan's King Abdullah II. He will on Wednesday abruptly shift from Iraq and Afghanistan to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to questions about Iran's nuclear ambitions and their threat to the Israelis and the region. By affirming his commitment to Israel's security, Obama will also attempt to overcome doubts at home among many Jewish voters.

Declining to speak in detail about his discussions with Petraeus, the candidate said the U.S. commander wants as much flexibility as possible on troop strength.

Obama said he would neither ignore the advice of military commanders nor accept it outright. "The notion is, is that either I do exactly what my military commanders tell me to do or I'm ignoring their advice," he said. "No, I'm factoring in their advice but placing it in this broader strategic framework . . . that's required."

Obama, who opposed the troop "surge" that Petraeus has implemented, acknowledged that the shift in strategy initiated in early 2007 has helped reduce violence in Iraq. He also said there has been some, but not enough, progress on political reconciliation.

In an interview with ABC's "Nightline" on Monday, Obama said he still would have opposed the surge even knowing what he now knows. He said the surge was only one of several factors that have improved conditions in Iraq -- others being cooperation by Sunni tribal leaders and the decision by the militia of anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr "to stand down."

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain vigorously supported the surge and has criticized Obama for not acknowledging its effects on security in Iraq. Asked at the news conference whether McCain deserves credit for pushing the policy, Obama replied, "I will leave it to the voters to make that decision."

Obama said he had hoped to avoid political warfare with his rival while overseas, but the attention the candidate's trip is receiving in the United States and potential implications for the November election makes that all but impossible. Minutes after the news conference, McCain's campaign issued a statement blasting the Democratic candidate.

"By continuing his opposition to the surge strategy long after it has proven successful and by admitting that his plan for withdrawal places him at odds with General David Petraeus, Barack Obama has made clear that his goal remains unconditional withdrawal rather than securing the victory our troops have earned and the surge has made possible," spokesman Tucker Bounds said.

Obama was asked repeatedly about his early opposition to the surge. Rather than assess whether he had taken the wrong position, he asserted that the overall direction of the debate over the future role of the U.S. military in both Iraq and Afghanistan has been moving in a direction he favors.

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