After Barack Obama met with Iraqi leaders here on Monday, the Iraqi government outlined a possible schedule for a U.S. troop withdrawal that is similar to the plan the Democratic presidential candidate has pledged to follow if he is elected.
Its announcement bolstered Obama’s credibility on a key foreign policy issue, early in a weeklong trip to the Middle East and Europe that was designed to reassure voters concerned he lacks the experience to be commander in chief.
It also gave him a boost in his debate with Republican presidential candidate John McCain over how to end the war in Iraq. McCain has repeatedly insisted that setting a firm withdrawal date ignores conditions on the ground and could prevent the U.S. from winning the war.
The renewed debate over troop withdrawals is one measure of how Obama’s trip -- his second to Iraq and his first as a presidential candidate -- is reverberating at home and abroad. Proposals by political candidates are usually given little weight, but the Iraqis appear to be taking seriously Obama’s plan to remove most U.S. combat troops within 16 months of taking office.
An Iraqi government spokesman said Monday that if security continued to improve, the government hoped the troops could leave by the end of 2010, about eight months later than Obama’s target. The spokesman, Ali Dabbagh, stopped short of endorsing Obama’s specific proposal or suggesting a firm deadline for the troops’ departure, but his remarks appeared to bolster Obama’s stance, proving awkward for McCain and the Bush administration.
On this trip, Obama will also meet the leaders of Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Germany, France and Britain. Since his travels began this weekend, television images and photographs have shown him with U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki in Baghdad. On Monday, the Illinois senator was photographed in a helicopter touring Baghdad with Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. military commander in Iraq.
McCain in recent days has appeared with familiar Republican officials at home; on Monday, the Arizona senator was seen on television riding in a golf cart with former President George H.W. Bush at Bush’s oceanfront estate in Maine. On Sunday, he attended a Yankees game with former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, his onetime rival for the GOP nomination.
Obama is scheduled to speak to U.S. journalists today in Amman, Jordan, but has so far spent little time talking to the media. In Baghdad on Monday, he did not stop to take questions from a gauntlet of Iraqi and Western journalists waiting at Maliki’s compound. He said without breaking stride that the meeting was “constructive” and that he would discuss it later.
In Washington, the Iraqi spokesman’s statement seemed to startle officials. The previous day, Dabbagh had tried to discredit an interview published in a German magazine in which Maliki seemed to endorse Obama’s plan.
The new statement Monday suggested that the Iraqi government and Obama are not far apart in their views of how long a drawdown might take.
“We cannot give any timetable other than that the Iraqi government believes that the end of 2010 is the appropriate time for the withdrawal of the forces,” Dabbagh told reporters.
His statement came only days after Bush and Maliki announced on Friday that they would work on a “general time horizon” for withdrawing U.S. combat troops, a phrase that implies flexibility.
Officials in both countries have underlined that the U.S. can reduce its presence in Iraq only if security continues to improve.
“They agreed -- the president and the prime minister and their negotiators -- that any decision should be based on conditions, should not be arbitrary, and it should not tie the hands of our commanders,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Monday.
McCain’s campaign also said any withdrawal plan should be linked to conditions in Iraq.
He has said it would be “reckless” to pull U.S. troops from Iraq in the 16-month time frame envisioned by his rival.
“That’s an artificial date,” said McCain foreign policy advisor Randy Scheunemann on Monday, “and it is completely ignorant of conditions on the ground and the effect that it would have both on our ability to withdraw as well as the ability to have sustainable security in Iraq in the aftermath.”
McCain, speaking at the Bush home in Maine, criticized Obama for opposing the “surge” of 28,500 additional U.S. troops into Iraq last year.
“The fact is, if we had done what Sen. Obama wanted to do, we would have lost and we would have faced a wider war, and we would have had greater problems in Afghanistan. . . . He has been completely wrong on that issue,” McCain said.
Obama wants to scale back the U.S. presence in Iraq and send two additional brigades to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan, which he visited for the first time over the weekend.
Dabbagh sidestepped questions about whether Iraqi officials discussed their proposed timeline for troop withdrawals with Obama.
Obama’s delegation, which includes Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.), was briefed Sunday by senior U.S., British and Iraqi commanders in Baghdad and Basra.
The number of attacks nationwide has dropped to levels last seen in 2004, according to military figures.
In a joint statement, the senators said: “Iraqis want an aspirational timeline, with a clear date, for the redeployment of American combat forces. Prime Minister Maliki told us that while the Iraqi people deeply appreciate the sacrifices of American soldiers, they do not want an open-ended presence of U.S. combat forces.”
Maliki’s government has become increasingly assertive about its ability to take charge of security after a string of successes against militants in major urban centers.
But many Iraqis worry that the country could slide back into more violence if U.S.- led forces are withdrawn too hastily.
Iraq’s Sunni vice president, Tariq Hashimi, said he relayed those concerns when he met with the delegation Monday.
“All Iraqis agree that the U.S. military should withdraw sooner or later but this should not . . . leave a security vacuum in Iraq,” Hashimi told reporters after the meeting. “The readiness of the Iraqi security forces should be ensured prior to such an event.”
Underlining the persistent threat, police said seven people were killed and eight others wounded Monday when a tractor rigged with explosives detonated as members of a U.S.-backed local guard force drove through a rural district of Diyala province.
Maliki is promising to send Iraqi reinforcements to the province.
Times staff writers Caesar Ahmed and Said Rifai in Baghdad, Peter Nicholas and James Gerstenzang in Washington and Maeve Reston in Maine contributed to this report.