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Obama sees security progress in Iraq

Obama 2008
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. accompanied by Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., left, and Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., briefs reporters Tuesday at Jordan's Amman Citadel, a site bearing evidence of settlements dating to 2000 B.C. AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama said on Tuesday there was "no doubt" the top U.S. commander in Iraq opposes setting a deadline for withdrawing American combat forces, but said the situation there is improving and that the United States urgently needs to turn its attention to Afghanistan.

Noting that the job of president and that of Gen. David Petraeus were different, Obama said he was setting "a strategic vision of what's best for U.S. national security" that he believes must include a mid-2010 target for removing American combat forces.

"There's no doubt Gen. Petraeus does not want a timetable. ... In his role he wants maximum flexibility to get done" what he thinks is necessary to the military mission.

Obama acknowledged that security in Iraq had improved, but said "now we need a political solution."

Speaking in Amman, Jordan, during the first news conference off his highly publicized trip abroad, Obama said Afghanistan is now the "central front in the war against terrorism." He was joined by traveling companions Sens. Chuck Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska, and Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island. Both are critics of the Iraq war.

Obama's plan for the pullout within 16 months of his taking office, should he defeat Republican John McCain, won conditional support on Monday during talks Obama and two Senate colleagues held in Baghdad with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other Iraqi leaders.

McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said Obama's news conference remarks showed that "his goal remains unconditional withdrawal rather than securing the victory our troops have earned."

Britain unveils withdrawal plan
Meantime in London on Tuesday, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Britain will begin a major troop withdrawal from Iraq in early 2009, if security continues to improve and work to train local security forces is completed. Britain currently has around 4,100 troops in Iraq, based mainly on the outskirts of Basra.

Brown told lawmakers Britain will keep current numbers in place for several months, but Britain's role in Iraq will change next year from combat and military training to boosting the economy of the oil-rich southern region.

Obama's deadline for withdrawing American combat forces would fall about half way into 2010, but he insisted on Tuesday he understood Petraeus' desire for "maximum flexibility."

"If, for example, you started seeing a resurgence of ethnic violence that presented the possibility of genocide, I would always reserve the right as commander in chief to intervene," Obama said.

Back in the U.S., McCain held a town hall meeting in New Hampshire, restating his readiness to lose the election rather than support an Iraq policy he felt would put the country in peril. "It seems Sen. Obama would rather loose a war to win a political campaign," he said.

McCain has battled to stay in the campaign spotlight as Obama's travels have drawn huge media attention at home and abroad. The four-term Arizona senator, appearing wrong-footed by the Iraq developments, hotly disagreed on troop withdrawals saying any pullout "must be based on conditions on the ground," not artificial timelines.

Next stop: Israel
Obama also looked forward during the Amman news conference to his visit to Israel later in the day, vowing a deeper U.S. involvement in trying to help the Jewish state and the Palestinians to reach an accord that would establish "two states living side by side in peace."

He said political turmoil both in Israel and in the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip had made it harder for either side to make daring compromises toward a lasting peace and he encouraged both sides to stop blaming one another and to "look into the mirror" to examine their own faults.

The Israeli visit loomed as a potential political mine field for Obama, who has failed to secure robust support among citizens and leaders of the tiny country and Jewish voters in the United States.

Obama has a solid Senate record of supporting Israel. He has reaffirmed his backing for Israel's right to defend itself and underscored the need to stop Iran from promoting terrorism or obtaining nuclear weapons. Like the Bush administration, he opposes negotiations with the Islamic militant group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip.

Still, his openness to talking to Iran — Israel's bitterest enemy — and his relatively short stint on the U.S. national stage have made many Israelis uncomfortable.

Speaking to an Israeli TV station in an interview broadcast Monday, McCain said stiffer sanctions might stop Iran's threats against Israel. The Republican said that in any event, the United States would not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons which could be used to destroy Israel.

Asked about Israel's saber-rattling against Iran, McCain replied, "I would hope that (an attack) would never happen, I would hope that Israel would not feel that threatened." He said the U.S. and Europe should impose "significant, very painful sanctions on Iran which I think could modify their behavior."

He added, "But I have to look you in the eye and tell you that the United States of America can never allow a second Holocaust."

Israel is convinced Tehran is building nuclear weapons, despite its denials. Iran also backs two other Israeli foes, the Islamic Hamas that rules the Gaza Strip and Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrilla group.

The U.S. historically has been Israel's strongest ally, and has made the Jewish state the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid. Politicians traditionally have courted the Jewish vote in the U.S. with demonstrations of loyalty to Israel.

Obama wrapped up his 2-day Iraq stay with a trip to Ramadi Tuesday, the former hotbed of the Sunni insurgency. He held talks with tribal leaders who joined the fight against al-Qaida in Iraq and now seek a deeper role in Iraq's political future.

The first-term Illinois senator's Iraq trip — a trip largely aimed at bolstering his foreign policy credentials — followed a challenge from McCain, who complained Obama was wrong to plan for troop withdrawals without having visited Iraq since January 2006.

McCain has visited Iraq eight times since the war began and says Obama's foreign policy initiatives are naive and that he is untested.

Throughout the day Monday, McCain heatedly hit out at Obama, seeking to remind voters that the Democrat was opposed to the 2007 addition of 30,000 U.S. troops — all now gone from the country — in a move credited with a major decline in violence.

"He's been completely wrong on the issue. ... I have been steadfast in my position," McCain said during a visit to former President George H.W. Bush in Kennebunkport, Maine. "When you win wars, troops come home."