By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON, April 14 (Reuters) - U.S. Republican presidential candidate John McCain is attempting to reassure Americans that "I detest war" even as he strongly backs the current U.S. war strategy in Iraq.
McCain and his aides point to his past as a Vietnam prisoner of war as evidence that he is well aware of the sacrifices involved in war and not eager to get the United States involved in more conflicts if elected in November.
"Somebody who understands war, understands the military and has foreign policy and diplomatic experience is the best person to avoid war," said McCain senior adviser Charlie Black. "McCain is the last guy who wants to go to war and he knows all the other steps to do to avoid it."
At a time when his Democratic rivals are promising a way out of Iraq, McCain is adhering to a long-held view that the United States is in a war against radical Islamic extremists and that a central battle in that conflict is in Iraq.
He says the United States must stay in Iraq to help democracy take hold in the Middle East and remain there in some fashion in the years ahead as peacekeepers, much like U.S. troops have done in South Korea and Japan for decades.
Now that a troop increase in Iraq that he had recommended has improved security, more Americans are with him and willing to be more patient, he believes.
"A significant number of Americans believe we should come home with honor, not with disgrace and genocide," he told reporters on his campaign bus recently.
McCain speaks aggressively against Iran for its influence in Iraq and for what he says is its attempt to build a nuclear weapon despite a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate's conclusion late last year that Iran had put its bid to develop an atomic bomb on hold in 2003.
All this has emboldened Democratic critics eager to take the White House after eight years of Republican rule under President George W. Bush.
A liberal radio talk show host who spoke at a fundraiser for Democratic candidate Barack Obama in North Dakota earlier this month, Ed Schultz, was castigated by the McCain campaign for referring to the Arizona senator as a "warmonger."
Obama distanced himself from Schultz but then came West Virginia Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who drew a condemnation and apologized after telling The Charleston Gazette:
"McCain was a fighter pilot, who dropped laser-guided missiles from 35,000 feet. He was long gone when they hit. What happened when they (the missiles) get to the ground? He doesn't know. You have to care about the lives of people. McCain never gets into those issues," Rockefeller said.
Democrats also accuse McCain of being blinded by Iraq, missing the threat posed by Islamic extremists in Afghanistan.
McCain argues that Obama and Democrat Hillary Clinton are promising a "reckless" pullout from Iraq, a pledge he says they would never be able to keep once they face the realities.
That is a view not shared by all his Republican colleagues in the Senate.
"I think what people want a sense of is what the end is going to look like," Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker told the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, when Petraeus gave an update on the war last week.
In addition, former Secretary of State Colin Powell told ABC's "Good Morning America" that the current U.S. course is unsustainable, that major troop deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan will have to be scaled back by the next president.
Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta, said McCain's stance on the Iraq war would be a central point of debate in the months leading up to the November election against either Illinois Sen. Obama or New York Sen. Clinton.
"I think he will be defending the Iraq policy and talking about how he was in favor of the surge, but I think he'll put that in the context of really being opposed to the war and wanting to get out as soon as possible," Black said.
On a tour earlier this month to places important to his life, McCain spent a long time during a speech in Jacksonville, Florida, talking about the perils of war.
"I detest war," he said. "It might not be the worst thing to befall human beings, but it is wretched beyond all description ... Only a fool or a fraud sentimentalizes the merciless reality of war."
(Editing by Eric Beech)
(To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/)