Obama says conditions to dictate final Iraq force

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama said in an interview published on Saturday the size of a residual U.S. force left in Iraq after the withdrawal of combat troops would be “entirely conditions-based.”

US Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) waves as he leaves 10 Downing Street in London, July 26, 2008. REUTERS/Jim Young

In comments seized upon by the campaign of Republican rival John McCain, Obama told Newsweek Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki recognized Iraq was “going to need our help for some time to come.”

“We’re going to have to provide them with logistical support, intelligence support. We’re going to have to have a very capable counterterrorism strike force,” Obama told the magazine while approaching Paris during a high-profile foreign tour, which included stops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We’re going to have to continue to train their army and police to make them more effective,” the Illinois senator added, calling such support consistent with his proposal for a 16-month timetable for withdrawing U.S. combat troops.

Asked if he had a clearer idea after talks with diplomatic and military officials how big a force would need to be left behind for those tasks, Obama replied: “I do think that’s entirely conditions-based.

“It’s hard to anticipate where we may be six months from now, or a year from now, or a year and a half from now.”

The McCain campaign said the comments were the latest shift in Obama’s position on Iraq toward his opponent’s view that troop withdrawals must be based on security conditions.

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“Barack Obama is ultimately articulating a position of sustained troop levels in Iraq based on the conditions on the ground and the security of the country. That is the very same position that John McCain has long held,” said McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds.

“We welcome this latest shift in Senator Obama’s position, but it is obvious that it was only a lack of experience and judgment that kept him from arriving at this position sooner,” the campaign said in a statement.

McCain, like U.S. President George W. Bush, has opposed a fixed schedule for withdrawing combat troops, preferring to remain until Iraq is fully secure.

But Bush agreed last week with al-Maliki that security gains made it possible to set a time horizon for achieving a U.S. troop withdrawal. Maliki later said 2010 was an appropriate goal for a U.S. withdrawal, similar to the date Obama has proposed.

McCain acknowledged in a CNN interview on Friday that a 16-month period would be “a pretty good timetable” for withdrawing U.S. troops, but said any withdrawal must be based on conditions on the ground.

Writing by Peter Cooney; editing by Jeff Mason