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.
A Karzai spokesman, Humayun Hamidzada, said the Illinois senator, accompanied by Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.), arrived at the presidential palace in Kabul just before noon and stayed more than two hours.
The delegation first held a formal meeting with Karzai and then attended a luncheon, where members dined on traditional foods, including mutton, rice and a yogurt drink.
Hamidzada said there was no tension in the wake of Obama’s comment to CNN this month that the Karzai government had not come out of its “bunker” and gotten a handle on the country’s immense security problems.
“We did not see that as criticism, because there is a degree of realism in that statement,” the presidential spokesman said. “While we are making significant progress in rebuilding our country, fighting terrorism and managing a normal life . . . we are also facing the significant threat of terrorism that is imposed on us.”
Karzai has faced a number of assassination attempts, most recently in April.
On the battlefield in Afghanistan, the day was mixed for Western troops.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization said Sunday that its forces had killed a senior Taliban leader, Mullah Sheik, in Helmand province, a center of the insurgency. The coalition blamed Sheik for a number of serious attacks, including the deadly use of roadside bombs against Western troops.
“We have removed yet another Taliban enemy leader who will no longer threaten the peace and security of Afghanistan,” said Capt. Mike Finney, a spokesman for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force.
But the North Atlantic Treaty Organization also acknowledged Sunday that its forces had accidentally killed at least four civilians, and possibly three others, in eastern Afghanistan. The deaths, in Paktika province, occurred Saturday night when Western troops fired mortar rounds that missed their target by about half a mile. Most of the Western troops in that region are Americans.
“ISAF deeply regrets this accident, and an investigation as to the exact circumstances of this tragic event is now underway,” the military said in a statement.
In another source of tension between Western forces and the government, an apparent case of “friendly fire” in the western province of Farah left at least nine Afghan police officers dead early Sunday, local authorities said.
The coalition said it was investigating the incident. Karzai has previously appealed to Western forces to use more restraint and make greater efforts to avoid harming civilians or Afghan police and soldiers.
Obama’s campaign staff has kept secret the timing of his Iraq trip for security reasons, but the campaign released some details of his upcoming visit to Germany. On Thursday, he is to give what his campaign bills as a “major speech on the historic U.S.-German” partnership in Tiergarten park in Berlin.
Obama had initially wanted to speak at the Brandenburg Gate, a symbol of Cold War hostilities and the spot where former President Reagan implored the Soviet leader at the time, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, to “tear down this wall.” But German Chancellor Angela Merkel had expressed reservations about holding a political campaign event there.
Special correspondent Faiez reported from Kabul and Times staff writer Nicholas from Washington. Times staff writers Laura King in Istanbul, Turkey, Alexandra Zavis and Doug Smith in Baghdad and Peter Spiegel in Washington contributed to this report.