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McCain stands firm on Iraq

Times Staff Writer

John McCain, chiding his Democratic presidential rivals for promising to withdraw troops from Iraq, said Monday that it would be “reckless” to leave the combat zone too quickly.

“I do not believe that anyone should make promises as a candidate for president that they cannot keep if elected,” said McCain, the presumptive GOP nominee for president. “To promise a withdrawal of our forces from Iraq, regardless of the calamitous consequences to the Iraqi people, our most vital interests and the future of the Middle East, is the height of irresponsibility” and “a failure of leadership.”

In a preview of the political fireworks surrounding the Capitol Hill testimony beginning today by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, McCain challenged Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton to confront the consequences of withdrawal.

“Doing the right thing in the heat of a political campaign is not always the easiest thing,” he said. “But when 4,000 Americans have given their lives so that America does not suffer the worst consequences of our failure in Iraq . . . we must put the nation’s interests before our own ambitions.”

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Hailing last year’s buildup of U.S. troops as “a critical moment in our nation’s history,” McCain told the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Kansas City, Mo., that Congress should reject, as it did last year, calls for what he labeled “a reckless and irresponsible withdrawal of our forces just at the moment when they are succeeding.”

The Clinton and Obama campaigns countered that the 5-year-old war had failed to make the U.S. safer.

“It’s a failure of leadership to support an open-ended occupation of Iraq that has failed to press Iraq’s leaders to reconcile, badly overstretched our military, put a strain on our military families, set back our ability to lead the world and made the American people less safe,” said Illinois Sen. Obama.

Clinton issued a statement chastising McCain’s Iraq strategy as “four more years of the Bush-Cheney-McCain policy of continuing to police a civil war while the threats to our national security, our economy and our standing in the world mount.”

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“We simply cannot give the Iraqi government an endless blank check,” the New York senator said. “It is time to end this war as quickly, as responsibly and as safely as possible.”

McCain did not predict how long U.S. troops would need to stay in Iraq, saying only that he hopes to withdraw them at the earliest opportunity and that security needs “will require that we keep a sufficient level of American forces in Iraq until security conditions” improve.

With Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker to appear before Congress, the three senators vying to become president will have an opportunity to ask questions -- McCain and Clinton on the Armed Services Committee in the morning, Obama on the Foreign Relations Committee in the afternoon.

McCain’s remarks on Iraq came on the same day that, according to the Associated Press, two of the Arizona senator’s campaign officials confirmed that he raised more than $15 million for his White House bid in March. Although that marked a big pickup for a campaign once starved for cash, it fell short of the $20 million raised by Clinton and the more than $40 million taken in by Obama last month.

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On another front, State Department officials tried to tamp down speculation that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was courting conservatives as a potential running mate for McCain.

“I don’t know how many ways she can say no,” said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. “She has got to finish up her work as secretary of State and then head back out West . . . to go to Stanford. Remember, she is still a tenured professor at Stanford and only on leave from Stanford. She fully intends to go back.”

The Clinton campaign, meanwhile, was regrouping after Sunday’s staff shake-up that led to pollster Mark Penn’s ouster as the New York senator’s chief strategist.

It also unveiled a $300-million-a-year proposal to increase government funding for breast cancer research. On “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” Clinton said she thought the government also should fund research on racial disparities in diagnosis and treatment of the disease, which she hoped would be effectively cured within 10 years.

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Separately, Clinton called on President Bush not to attend the Olympic Games opening ceremonies in Beijing this summer.

“The violent clashes in Tibet and the failure of the Chinese government to use its full leverage with Sudan to stop the genocide in Darfur are opportunities for presidential leadership,” she said, charging the Bush administration “has been wrong to downplay human rights in its policy towards China.”

Bush has said he plans to attend the Beijing Olympics because it is a sporting event, not a political event.

The White House said that the president’s decision did not diminish the administration’s oft-stated concerns about China’s human rights record. “We have never been afraid to express those views,” said spokesman Tony Fratto.

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johanna.neuman@latimes.com


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