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Published: Tuesday, 7/22/2008

Iraqi view on U.S. pullout is near stance of visiting Obama

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Sen. Barack Obama (D., Ill.) talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad with an
unidentifi ed man at center. Iraqi offi cials backed withdrawal of all U.S. combat troops in 2010.
Sen. Barack Obama (D., Ill.) talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad with an unidentifi ed man at center. Iraqi offi cials backed withdrawal of all U.S. combat troops in 2010.
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BAGHDAD - Face to face with Iraq's leaders, Barack Obama gained fresh support yesterday for the idea of pulling all U.S. combat forces out of the war zone by 2010.

But the Iraqis stopped short of timetables or endorsement of Mr. Obama's pledge to withdraw U.S. troops within 16 months if he wins the presidency.

The Democratic presidential contender also got a military briefing - and a helicopter tour - from the top U.S. commander in the region, Gen. David Petraeus, and he met with a few of the nearly 150,000 U.S. troops now well into the war's sixth year.

As Mr. Obama visited Iraq for the first time in more than two years, comments by the Iraqi government spokesman roughly mirrored the Illinois senator's withdrawal schedule and offered a glimpse of Iraq's growing confidence as violence drops and Iraqi security forces expand their roles.

"We are hoping that in 2010 that combat troops will withdraw from Iraq," spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said after Mr. Obama met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki - who has struggled for days to clarify Iraq's position on a possible timetable for a U.S. troop pullout.

Iraq's Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi, said after meeting Mr. Obama that Iraqi leaders share "a common interest ... to schedule the withdrawal of American troops."

"I'd be happy if we reach an agreement to say, for instance, the 31st of December, 2010" would mark the departure of the last U.S. combat unit, he said - then noted that any such goal could be revised depending on threats and the pace of training for Iraqi security forces.

That date would be about seven months later than Mr. Obama's 16-month timeline.

Mr. Obama said little to reporters as he walked to and from his meetings.

"Excellent conversation," he said as he left talks with Mr. al-Hashemi.

"Very constructive," he said after leaving a meeting with Mr. al-Maliki.

Mr. Obama promised to give fuller impressions after his stop in Iraq wraps up today and he heads to Jordan and then Israel.

In Washington, the White House expressed unhappiness about Iraqi leaders' apparent public backing for Mr. Obama's troop withdrawal plans and suggested the Iraqis may be trying to use the U.S. presidential election as leverage for negotiations on America's presence and future obligations in the country.

"We don't think that talking about specific negotiating tactics or your negotiating position in the press is the best way to negotiate a deal," White House spokesman Dana Perino said.

"It will not be a date that you just pluck out of thin air," she said. "It will not be something that Americans say, 'We're going to do - we're going to leave at this date,' which is what some have suggested."

The Bush Administration has refused to set specific troop level targets but last week offered to discuss a "general time horizon" for a U.S. combat troop exit.

Asked whether the Iraqis might be trying to use the U.S. presidential election for leverage in negotiations over the future of the American military mission in Iraq, she said, "I think that a lot of other people look through the lens of a 2008 presidential election. ... Might they be? Sure. I mean, it's possible."

This is the third leg of Mr. Obama's tour of the region, which has included stops in Kuwait and Afghanistan.

The counterpoint was clear: Mr. Obama opposed the Iraq war from the start and views the battle against the resurgent Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan as America's most critical fight.

But Iraq is not the same place as when Mr. Obama last visited in January, 2006.

Both Sunni insurgents, including al-Qaeda in Iraq, and Shiite militias have suffered significant blows. And security forces in Baghdad - once the scene of near daily car bombs and sectarian killings - have made clear gains since last year's troop build-up of nearly 30,000 soldiers.

In an interview yesterday on ABC's Good Morning America, Mr. McCain said he hoped Mr. Obama would now "have the opportunity to see the success of the surge."

"This is the same strategy that he voted against, railed against," Mr. McCain said. "He was wrong about the surge. It is succeeding and we are winning."

All five surge brigades have left Iraq, but there are still about 147,000 U.S. soldiers in the country.

Mr. Obama - traveling in a congressional delegation with Sens. Jack Reed (D., R.I.) and Chuck Hagel (R., Neb.) - first arrived in the city of Basra in Iraq's mostly Shiite south.

Basra is the center for about 4,000 British troops involved mostly in training Iraqi forces. An Iraqi-led offensive begun in March reclaimed control of most of the city from Shiite militia believed linked to Iran.

In Baghdad, the delegation traveled in convoys of black SUVs with tinted windows.

Security around the city was not noticeably tightened, but that's difficult to gauge in a place with permanent checkpoints, concrete blast walls, and military helicopter surveillance. No major attacks were reported around the capital.



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