Obama: Iraq now needs a political solution

July 22, 2008 5:41:11 PM PDT
Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama declined to rate the Bush administration's troop surge in Iraq a success on Tuesday despite a reduction in violence, and expressed understanding of Gen. David Petraeus' opposition to a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops.

"Not surprisingly he wants to retain as much flexibility as possible," Obama said of the general, with whom he met in recent days while touring Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I think he wants maximum flexibility to be able to ? to do what he believes needs to be done inside of Iraq.

"But keep in mind, for example, one of General Petraeus' responsibilities is not to think about how could we be using some of that $10 billion a month to shore up a U.S. economy that is really hurting right now," Obama said.

"If I'm president of the United States, that is part of my responsibility."

Obama made his remarks at a news conference shortly after arriving in Jordan. It was the first stop of an election-season trip to the Mideast and Europe paid for by campaign funds.

His remarks about Iraq drew criticism from Tucker Bounds, spokesman for Republican candidate John McCain. "By admitting that his plan for withdrawal places him at odds with Gen. David Petraeus, Barack Obama has made clear that his goal remains unconditional withdrawal rather than securing the victory our troops have earned," the aide said.

The Illinois senator voted against 2002 legislation that authorized military action in Iraq and has long called for the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops along a 16-month timetable. He favors leaving a force of undetermined size behind to help counter terrorists, protect U.S. personnel and facilities and train Iraqis.

He said he would consult with military commanders to determine how many troops to keep in the country to protect diplomatic and humanitarian operations, to train Iraqis and to conduct counterterrorism operations against al-Qaida in Iraq.

He also opposed Bush's decision to add 30,000 troops more than a year ago, saying it would not succeed, although a gradual reduction in violence and U.S. casualties has called that prediction into question.

Asked for his current assessment, he said, "I believe that the situation in Iraq is more secure than it was a year and a half ago."

Yet he added, "I think that the definition of success depends on how you look at it.

"Originally, the administration suggested that the key measure was whether it gave breathing room for political reconciliation. So far, I think we have not seen the kind of political reconciliation that's going to bring about long-term stability in Iraq," he said.

Obama toured two war zones with Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., both of whom joined him at a news conference at the Amman Citadel, an ancient hilltop ruin that bears evidence of settlements dating to 2000 B.C. The skyline of modern-day Amman, cement dwellings and the occasional mosque, formed a made-for-television backdrop.

The three lawmakers issued a written statement last week saying that Afghanistan, where the Taliban is resurgent and Osama Bin Laden believed to be hiding, central front in the war against terrorism.

Obama repeated the sentiment at the news conference, adding, "The situation in Afghanistan is perilous and urgent," he said. "We must act now to reverse a deteriorating situation."

Obama made his remarks as Prime Minister Gordon Brown said in London that 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.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has also spoken favorably of the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces along a timetable similar to Obama's.

Before leaving Iraq, Obama traveled to a former hotbed of the Sunni insurgency for talks Tuesday with tribal leaders who joined the fight against al-Qaida in Iraq and now seek a deeper role in Iraq's political future.

Obama met leaders of the so-called Awakening Council movement in Ramadi, one of the main cities of the western Anbar Province where al-Qaida once had the upper hand against embattled U.S. and Iraqi troops.

Tribal sheiks last year began an uprising against insurgents that is credited with uprooting extremist strongholds and helping bring violence around Iraq to its lowest levels in four years.