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Now's the time to redeploy Iraq troops, Obama says

As his timetable plan draws criticism, he calls for seizing the opportunity to focus on Afghanistan.

July 21, 2008|Peter Nicholas and M. Karim Faiez | Special to The Times

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — As Sen. Barack Obama headed to Iraq for his first visit as a presidential candidate, his plan for bringing the war to a swift conclusion was triggering a political furor abroad and at home, with a U.S. military leader declaring Sunday that setting a hard deadline for withdrawing troops is risky.

Obama arrived today in Baghdad, where he is scheduled to meet with Iraqi political leaders who were scrambling over the weekend to clarify an apparent endorsement of his proposal to pull U.S. forces out of Iraq in 16 months.

The stop in Iraq is part of a weeklong tour of Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe, affording Obama the chance to showcase a fluency in foreign affairs.

On Sunday, he met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, describing the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan as the central front in Washington's fight against terrorism, according to aides to Karzai.

Obama, the presumed Democratic nominee, wants to wind down U.S. involvement in Iraq and redeploy troops and resources to Afghanistan, a country that he said had devolved again into a sanctuary for terrorists intent on harming the United States.

"There is starting to be a growing consensus that it's time for us to withdraw some of our combat troops out of Iraq, deploy them here in Afghanistan," Obama said in an interview Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation." "And I think we have to seize that opportunity. Now is the time for us to do it."

Central to Obama's strategy is a plan to remove combat troops from Iraq in a set time frame, although he has said he would fine-tune his tactics depending on conditions in Iraq and advice he gets from military leaders.

One military leader stepped into the debate Sunday. Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an appearance on "Fox News Sunday" that setting a two-year deadline to pull all troops out of Iraq would not be advisable.

"I think the consequences could be very dangerous in that regard," Mullen said. "I'm convinced at this point in time that making reductions based on conditions on the ground are very important."

Obama's expected Republican opponent in November, Sen. John McCain, seized on Mullen's remarks. One of McCain's foreign policy advisors, Randy Scheunemann, said in a prepared statement: "Barack Obama says he wants a 'safe and responsible' withdrawal from Iraq, but is stubbornly adhering to an unconditional withdrawal that places politics above the advice of our military commanders, the success of our troops, and the security of the American people."

Iraq's prime minister, Nouri Maliki, had appeared to approve of Obama's plan to close out the war. In an interview with a German magazine published Saturday, Maliki said the 16-month deadline "would be the right time frame for a withdrawal. . . ."

But on Sunday, a Maliki spokesman said the magazine, Der Spiegel, had misinterpreted the prime minister's comments.

Ali Dabbagh said Maliki had told Der Spiegel that improved security in Iraq would permit the exit of U.S. forces within certain "horizons and timelines" -- language that more closely tracks the Bush administration's position. There was no mention of specific dates. In an unusual step, the U.S. military gave the Western media an English translation of Dabbagh's statement.

The White House announced Friday that President Bush had agreed in a video call with Maliki the day before on a "general time horizon" for withdrawing U.S. combat troops, a softening of his long-standing opposition to deadlines.

Although Iraqis are unlikely to view the move as a major concession, it might help Maliki politically as he prepares for provincial elections. Many in Maliki's administration worry that too hasty a departure of U.S. troops could mean a return to previous levels of violence, but the government faces criticism from rivals such as Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, who accuse the government of tolerating an indefinite U.S. presence. Hence a need to show that the government is making preparations for an eventual U.S. withdrawal.

The tempest over Maliki's remarks to Der Spiegel was the second time in recent days that a senior Iraqi official backtracked on strong comments about the future of U.S. forces in Iraq. Maliki's national security advisor, Mowaffak Rubaie, was widely quoted as saying Iraq would not accept a new security agreement unless it contained specific dates for U.S. troop withdrawals.

The following day, Rubaie distributed a statement to journalists that said Iraq was developing "time horizons for the end of the requirement for U.S. combat operations in Iraq and for the presence of U.S. combat brigades in Iraq."

Obama's talk with Karzai was the first of several face-to-face meetings planned with world leaders as he shuttles from the Middle East to Germany, France and Britain.

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