By Jeff Mason
BUFFALO, New York, July 21 (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate John McCain appeared to leave a door open on Monday to a large-scale drawdown of U.S. troops from Iraq in the next two years.
McCain, who has wrapped up his party's White House nomination, has long argued against setting a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal.
But the discussion on troop levels has shifted in recent days after Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki seemed to endorse Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's call for troops to be gone within 16 months of his taking office.
Obama met with Iraqi leaders in Baghdad on Monday, and an Iraqi government spokesman said Maliki told the Illinois senator conditions on the ground should dictate troop withdrawals.
After a meeting with former President George H.W. Bush, McCain was asked whether it was conceivable for U.S. troops to be fully pulled out of Iraq in about two years.
"I think they could be largely withdrawn," the Arizona senator replied, citing the success of the "surge" strategy of increasing U.S. troop levels in increasing security in the country.
"As I've said, we have succeeded. This strategy is not (just) succeeding, we have succeeded. And of course as we all know it has to be based on conditions on the ground."
McCain said U.S. military success had made it possible for troops to return. "When you win wars, troops come home. And we are winning," he said.
McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said the senator's comments did not reflect a shift in position.
"The two years in his answer today is consistent with his position that we can begin to responsibly discuss the reduction of troop levels in Iraq as long as they are based on maintaining the security and stability of the gains we made," Bounds said.
Obama's trip to the Middle East and Europe has drawn significant media attention, to the frustration of the McCain campaign. Columnist Robert Novak, citing sources close to the McCain campaign, reported in the Evans-Novak Political Report that the Republican senator may announce his vice presidential pick this week to draw some attention away from the Obama trip.
Bounds declined to comment on the report.
Earlier, the campaign said a McCain opinion article about Iraq offered to The New York Times as a rebuttal to Obama had been rejected.
The McCain camp had submitted the article to The Times as a response to a piece by Obama published by the newspaper last week.
Obama's piece, "My Plan for Iraq," had detailed his goal of withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq in 16 months if he is elected on Nov. 4.
The McCain article was largely a critique of Obama's position, arguing against establishing a set timetable for pulling out U.S. troops.
"During the course of eight visits to Iraq, I have heard many times from our troops what Major General Jeffrey Hammond, commander of coalition forces in Baghdad, recently said: that leaving based on a timetable would be 'very dangerous,'" McCain wrote.
An e-mail sent to the McCain staff by a Times editor said it would be terrific to have an article from McCain but that the one sent in was not acceptable as written and that a new draft should articulate how McCain defines victory in Iraq.
The McCain campaign, which does not feel McCain gets equal treatment in the U.S. news media, expressed dismay at the Times' decision and suspected it was because the Times did not agree with McCain's policy.
The New York Times said it was standard procedure to have a "back and forth with an author about his or her submission" and looked forward to publishing McCain's views.
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland and Robert MacMillan, writing by Jeff Mason and Steve Holland, editing by Philip Barbara)
(To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/)