WASHINGTON — Democratic presidential candidate Bill Richardson on Wednesday called for the U.S. to end the war in Iraq, arguing that the troops exacerbate the sectarian violence and the billions spent could be used for health care and other needs.
"We're a nation that spends $5.5 billion in cancer research — that's two weeks of the Iraq war," Richardson told The Associated Press. "It shows the misguided priorities."
"We are being bled dry by an invasion that is costing us $500 billion so far — $500 billion," he said, stressing the cost. "And it's detracting from American security objectives in dealing with terrorism, with nuclear proliferation, with energy independence."
In an hourlong interview with AP editors and reporters, the New Mexico governor argued that all combat and non-combat troops should be removed from Iraq because their presence is only contributing to violence instead of bringing security.
"There's no question there's tribal and ethnic hatreds," Richardson told The Associated Press. "But when those tribal and ethnic hatreds are fueled by American policy of hostility, then you make the situation worse."
Plan for Iraq
Richardson criticized Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards — his leading rivals for the presidential nomination — for plans to pull out combat troops from Iraq but leave residual forces behind. He said he would keep the Marines that guard the U.S. embassy in Baghdad but would withdraw all other military personnel.
"Who is going to take care of non-combat troops? The Iraqis?" Richardson asked. He said he would move a small contingent mostly of special forces to Kuwait and more troops into Afghanistan, although he would leave the specific number up to military leaders.
He said he has asked his rivals to describe exactly how many troops they would leave and for how long in two previous debates but seemed frustrated that he hasn't gotten an answer.
"It's as if I'm talking to myself," he said.
Iraq was the primary topic of Richardson's interview, but he discussed several other issues as well. Among them, he:
• Said he would lift the trade embargo with Cuba in exchange for the release of political prisoners.
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• Said he would consider banning assault weapons if there were an effective way to do so, although he said past efforts have been "a joke."Video: Richardson touts diplomatic approach with Iran
"I believe you don't need Uzis to go hunting," said Richardson, who has been a proponent of gun rights and had the backing of the National Rifle Association. "If there is an effective way to ban them, I'd take a look at it. But past bans don't work."
• Said Republicans appeared to be giving up on outreach to minorities by refusing to attend their presidential forums and debates. "Whatever happened to their outreach to Hispanics?" he said.
• Proposed an effort to deal with $83 billion in corporate welfare much like the military's base closure commission. It "would look at all the goodies that involve corporate welfare and have an up-or-down vote like we do with base closures, because otherwise they nitpick you to death."
• Said he was making a "mad dash" as the third fundraising quarter ends and would raise about as much as he did in the first two quarters — $6 million-$7 million.
• Compared his campaign to the underdog candidacies of Bill Clinton in 1992 and John Kerry in 2004. "I'm going to win this nomination," he said. "You watch." He said he knows he needs a strong finish in Iowa and New Hampshire to stay in the race.
"I've got to beat one of the top three," he said.
Richardson said the window for a political settlement in Iraq is closing, with only about six months left. But he said the country has resources to govern itself, including experience with free elections, democratic institutions and oil wealth.
"Iraq is not exactly helpless," Richardson said. "I think we're selling the country short."
He said he disagrees with a newspaper ad run by the liberal group MoveOn.org referring to Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, as "General Betray-Us." But he said he supports the group's work.
"Moveon.org is doing a lot to stop the war," he said.
At a speech to the Obesity Society after the meeting with The AP, Richardson said he would work with Congress to amend the Americans with Disabilities Act to include protections for the obese.
"We have to eliminate discrimination of those who are overweight," Richardson said. "This is an issue of basic civil rights. There are no federal laws that protect obese Americans from discrimination in the workplace, in school, or anywhere else. This has to change."
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