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2 campaigns flare up over Iraq troop levels

A fierce debate erupted on Friday between Senators John McCain and Barack Obama over whether Mr. McCain misspoke at a town-hall-style meeting the previous day when he said that American troops in Iraq had been reduced to “pre-surge levels.”
/ Source: The New York Times

A fierce debate erupted on Friday between Senators and over whether Mr. McCain misspoke at a town-hall-style meeting the previous day when he said that American troops in had been reduced to “pre-surge levels.”

Mr. McCain has been hammering Mr. Obama on his judgment on national security and his comprehension of the situation in Iraq, noting that the Democrat last visited Iraq two and a half years ago.

The Obama campaign pounced Friday on Mr. McCain’s statement on troop levels, arguing that the Republican candidate was the one who was out of touch with the facts in Iraq. In a conference call, Obama aides reviewed a series of what they said were gaffes Mr. McCain had made talking about the war.

At a news conference here on Friday, however, Mr. McCain asserted that he had not misspoken on Thursday.

The Obama campaign focused on what Mr. McCain said that day in Greenville, Wis., in response to a woman in the audience who pressed him on whether the conflict in Iraq was damaging the American economy.

Mr. McCain listened patiently to the woman and then pushed back vigorously, arguing that President Bush’s troop escalation was yielding results.

“I can tell you it is succeeding,” he said. “I can look you in the eye and tell you it is succeeding. We have drawn down to pre-surge levels. Basra, Mosul and now Sadr City are quiet.”

Mr. McCain’s remarks, however, differ from the numbers available. There were 132,000 troops in Iraq before Mr. Bush dispatched an additional 21,500 combat troops early last year, including five Army brigades, making up what is commonly referred to as the surge. In addition, some 8,000 support forces were sent to Iraq as part of the buildup.

Three of the five Army brigades have left Iraq, along with some marines sent as part of the escalation, leaving about 155,000 troops. The remaining two brigades are scheduled to leave by the end of July, at which point Gen. , the American commander in Iraq, has recommended a pause in troop drawdowns to reassess the situation.

Even then, the Pentagon has said that the troop level in Iraq is expected to be 140,000, about 8,000 more than before the surge, because some of the support troops sent to Iraq in the buildup are still needed.

In a conference call, Randy Scheunemann, Mr. McCain’s senior national security and foreign policy adviser, and Senator , a fellow Arizona Republican and a McCain supporter, offered explanations defending the accuracy of Mr. McCain’s statement, before essentially conceding that he had erred at least in part.

They characterized the attacks by the Obama campaign as nitpicking over “verb tenses,” saying the examination distracted from the broader issue — their contention that Mr. Obama was willfully ignoring evidence of progress in Iraq.

“Take the worst possibility here, which is Senator McCain misspoke,” Mr. Kyl said. “And that because of the specific words used, what he said was not entirely accurate. O.K., so what?”

But in a news conference here, in response to separate questions, Mr. McCain twice denied that he had misspoken, even as he admitted that the drawdown from the troop escalation had not yet been completed.

“We have drawn down from the surge,” he said, “and we will complete that drawdown at the end of July. That’s just a factual statement, and it’s clear.”

The Obama campaign later released remarks that Mr. Obama planned to deliver Friday night in Montana, in which he said that “anyone running for commander in chief should know better” what the troop levels were.

“Just like George Bush, when he was presented with the truth, he just dug in and refused to admit his mistake,” according to the prepared remarks. “His campaign said it amounts to ‘nitpicking.’ Well, I don’t think tens of thousands of American troops amounts to nitpicking.”

Also on Friday, Mr. McCain admitted to making an error in using a photograph of General Petraeus for fund-raising.

“It won’t happen again,” he said at the news conference, after Senator , Democrat of Massachusetts and an Obama supporter, criticized him for “using a picture of General Petraeus in uniform to raise money and launch negative attacks.”

Mr. Kerry pointed out that Mr. McCain’s fund-raising appeal, which circulated as an e-mail message, came on the heels of an open letter by Adm. , the chairman of the , saying, “The U.S. military must remain apolitical at all times and in all ways.”

A spokesman for General Petraeus, Lt. Col. Joseph M. Yoswa, said: “The McCain campaign did not ask for permission to use the photo. General Petraeus is aware of the photo being used. By no means does the use of his photo mean he has endorsed anybody. He has not. He won’t. He remains apolitical.”

Michael Luo reported from Milwaukee, and Sarah Wheaton from New York.

This article, 2 campaigns flare up over Iraq troop levels , first appeared in The New York Times.