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Obama offers plan for winding down war

Senator Barack Obama on Wednesday presented his most extensive plan yet for winding down the war in Iraq, proposing to withdraw all combat brigades by the end of next year while leaving behind an unspecified smaller force to strike at terrorists, train Iraqi soldiers and protect American interests.
/ Source: The New York Times

Senator Barack Obama yesterday presented his most extensive plan yet for winding down the war in Iraq, proposing to withdraw all combat brigades by the end of next year while leaving behind an unspecified smaller force to strike at terrorists, train Iraqi soldiers and protect American interests.

Speaking in Iowa, Mr. Obama combined an attack on both parties in Washington for having gotten the United States into the war with the outline of an approach for getting out that immediately drew criticism from the left of his party for being too timid and from Republicans as being irresponsible.

“What’s at stake is bigger than this war: it’s our global leadership,” Mr. Obama said. “Now is a time to be bold. We must not stay the course or take the conventional path because the other course is unknown.”

Mr. Obama, of Illinois, used the speech to highlight again his early and consistent opposition to the war, and to compare it to the votes in 2002 by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and John Edwards, then a senator from North Carolina, to give President Bush the authority to go to war in Iraq. But Mr. Obama’s strategy for where to go from here, especially in maintaining an American military presence in Iraq and the region, is similar to the plan embraced by Mrs. Clinton, who is leading the Democratic field of potential presidential nominees in most opinion polls.

One day after questioning Gen. David H. Petraeus as he testified before Congress, Mr. Obama and other candidates took their respective cases to voters. On one side of Iowa, Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, argued that the administration’s strategy should be given more time to succeed, while across the state, Mr. Obama offered a conflicting view.

“The best way to protect our security and to pressure Iraq’s leaders to resolve their civil war is to immediately begin to remove our combat troops,” Mr. Obama said. “Not in six months or one year — now.”

In his address, Mr. Obama proposed removing American combat troops at a pace of one or two brigades a month, which is about twice as fast as American commanders in Iraq have deemed prudent. There are currently about 20 combat brigades in Iraq, which General Petraeus has committed to reducing to 15 next summer.

Under the Obama plan, no more than 10 brigades would be in Iraq at that point. Military experts who supported the administration’s “surge” strategy called the troop levels proposed by Mr. Obama insufficient.

“That is a precipitous withdrawal,” said Jack Keane, the former Vice Chief of Staff of the Army and an early proponent of the administration’s strategy. “What it does is squander all the gains we made in the past five to six months. What it would do is turn Baghdad over to the extremists.”

Polls suggest that there is considerable public support for the approach outlined by Mr. Obama. In the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, 56 percent of Americans said they favored reducing troops levels in Iraq, but leaving some forces in place to train Iraqi forces, fight terrorists and protect American diplomats.

Twenty-two percent favored a complete withdrawal in the next year, and 20 percent favored keeping the same number of troops “until there is a stable democracy in Iraq.”

Several of Mr. Obama’s Democratic rivals said yesterday that the senator was taking a step backward by not giving a specific deadline for withdrawal.

“Senator Obama has a gift for soaring rhetoric, but, on this critical issue, we need to know the substance of his position with specificity,” said one of them, Senator Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut.

Another, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, said: “Leaving behind tens of thousands of troops in Iraq for an indefinite amount of time is nothing new. This plan is inadequate and does not end the war.”

Mr. Obama delivered his remarks in an address at Ashford University in Clinton, Iowa. While he did not directly mention Mrs. Clinton by name, the words in his speech and the name of the city in which he chose to give his speech made his point clear.

“Too many politicians feared looking weak and failed to ask hard questions. Too many took the president at his word instead of reading the intelligence for themselves,” Mr. Obama said.

He added: “I opposed the war in 2002. I opposed it in 2003. I opposed it in 2004. I opposed it in 2005. I opposed it in 2006.”

With less than four months remaining before the first voters declare their preferences in the presidential nominating process, Mr. Obama is seeking to gain ground on Mrs. Clinton. He has sought to use the Congressional war authorization in 2002, which she supported, as a crucial distinction between them.

For months, the two senators have tussled over who has more experience and who represents the voice of change. Mr. Obama’s speech was filled with references that he offered voters a new direction.

“I come from a new generation of Americans,” Mr. Obama said. “I don’t want to fight the battles of the 1960s.”

Mrs. Clinton did not respond to Mr. Obama yesterday, but turned her attention to Mr. Bush, urging him to accelerate the troop withdrawals in Iraq. The president is scheduled to address the nation Thursday evening on Iraq, and in her letter, released by her campaign, she asked him to “seize the opportunity” and offer a candid assessment of the war.

“One year from now, there will be the same number of troops in Iraq as there were one year ago,” Mrs. Clinton wrote. “Mr. President, that is simply too little too late, and unacceptable to this Congress, and to the American people who have made clear their strong desire to bring our troops home, and end this war.”