ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate John McCain sought on Monday to distance himself from President George W. Bush's handling of the Iraq war, telling veterans on Memorial Day he was "sick at heart" at mistakes made in the conflict now in its sixth year.
"As we all know, the American people have grown sick and tired of the war in Iraq," McCain told hundreds of veterans and their families gathered for a ceremony honoring U.S. service members killed in conflicts.
"I understand that, of course. I, too, have been made sick at heart by the many mistakes made by civilian and military commanders and the terrible price we have paid for them," he added.
The war is unpopular with voters, and in anticipation of facing Democratic front-runner Barack Obama in the general election in November, McCain has increasingly sought to disassociate himself from the administration's Iraq policies.
"We have new commanders in Iraq," McCain said to applause.
He continued with a veiled swipe at Bush: "They are following a counterinsurgency strategy that we should have been following from the beginning, which makes the most effective use of our strength and doesn't strengthen the tactics of our enemy."
Obama and Democrat Hillary Clinton have promised to withdraw all 155,000 U.S. troops serving in Iraq as soon as possible.
McCain criticized these plans, saying, "It would strengthen al Qaeda, empower Iran and other hostile powers in the Middle East, unleash a full scale civil war in Iraq that could quite possibly provoke genocide there, and destabilize the entire region as neighboring powers come to the aid of their favored factions."
Earlier this month he said he believed the Iraq war can be won by 2013, leaving a functioning democracy there and allowing most U.S. troops to come home.
McCain last year backed a decision to send a further 30,000 troops to Iraq to halt a slide toward sectarian civil war in Iraq, and said the surge was "succeeding where our previous tactics failed."
He spent much of the holiday weekend at a vacation home in Arizona with three Republicans who have been mentioned as possible vice presidential running mates: former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Editing by Jackie Frank