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.
There is a growing consensus, he said, to send more troops to battle al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, something that he has long proposed and that he reiterated in the news conference. He also spoke of rising support for a time frame for pulling troops out of Iraq. Obama got an unexpected boost while in Iraq when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called for a withdrawal timetable that would have U.S. combat forces leave that country by the end of 2010.
"The message we heard from Iraq's leaders is that they're ready to do more, and they want to take more responsibility for their country," Obama said.
Asked whether he had learned anything on the trip that had changed his mind about future policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama responded by saying the trip to Afghanistan had given him an even keener appreciation that without cleaning up the porous border with Pakistan, defeating the Taliban will be difficult.
Obama spoke to reporters from the historic Citadel archaeological site, which provided a stunning backdrop overlooking the Jordanian capital. The news conference, his first since leaving Washington last Thursday, came a few hours after he and Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.) landed in Jordan from Iraq.
The three senators concluded two days of meetings in Iraq with a stop in Anbar province, once the heartland of a Sunni insurgency that bedeviled U.S. forces. There, the visitors met officials including the provincial governor and the police chief, as well as top figures in the U.S.-backed Awakening movement, made up of tribal fighters who turned their weapons against the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq.
U.S. officials acknowledge that the Awakening movement was vital to bringing levels of violence down in Iraq during the past year, along with a cease-fire ordered by Sadr and the influx of thousands of U.S. troop reinforcements into Baghdad.
Police chief Tariq Yousef al-Asaal said the local officials told Obama about their success in tamping down the threat of al-Qaeda in Iraq and invited U.S. companies to invest in Anbar. But Obama, Asaal said, appeared more interested in discussing troop cuts and the eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces.
By Asaal's account, there was no discussion in the meeting about whether Iraqi security forces are ready to take over security responsibilities. "If he had asked me about whether my forces were ready or not, I would have said you could leave, you and your forces," Asaal said. "I can control the province with my police forces, and I challenge al-Qaeda to come to take back one square meter."
In a separate meeting, also inside the heavily guarded provincial government complex, Obama met with Ahmed Abu Risha, head of the Anbar Awakening Council, who took over after his brother, Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, was assassinated in a bombing last September.
In the meetings in Ramadi, Obama saw firsthand Iraq's bitter political rivalries. Ali Hatem Ali Suleiman, a top Awakening tribal leader who was at the meeting, said his group asked Obama to support the tribes -- and not the Sunni Islamic parties that rejoined Iraq's government over the weekend.
Awakening members also told Obama that a security pact being negotiated with the United States should wait until a new U.S. administration is in office "because the Iraqi parliament does not represent Iraqis well."
Obama asked the tribal leaders whether Iraq's security forces are ready to take over security, Suleiman said. They told Obama that while Iraq's forces have improved, the province is still fragile and faces threats from al-Qaeda in Iraq.
"You can pull out and withdraw all the forces in Iraq, but you have to keep the Marines in our province because we still have problems with the Islamic parties and we can face a bad situation at any moment," Suleiman said they told Obama.
Raghavan reported from Baghdad. Special correspondent Qais Mizher in Baghdad contributed to this report.