AMMAN (Reuters) - U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama said on Tuesday he was committed to a 16-month timetable for a U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq, after a trip in which he met Iraqi leaders and U.S. officials.
Obama was speaking in the Jordanian capital as part of a tour of the region in which he has sought to shift the focus of U.S. military efforts from Iraq to Afghanistan, where al Qaeda and the Taliban are resurgent.
The question of when to withdraw some 147,000 U.S. troops in Iraq overshadowed the first term senator’s trip. Obama has made his opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 a centerpiece of his election campaign.
“What I have proposed is a steady, deliberate draw down over the course of 16 months,” he told a news conference in Amman.
Obama has said the draw down would enable more troops to be deployed in Afghanistan, where insurgent attacks in the past two months have killed more U.S. soldiers than in Iraq.
He described the situation in Afghanistan as “perilous and urgent” and said al Qaeda and the Taliban were planning more attacks in the United States.
“In Afghanistan and the border region of Pakistan, al Qaeda and the Taliban are mounting a growing offensive against the security of the Afghan people and increasingly the Pakistani people, while plotting new attacks against the United States,” he said.
Progress in boosting stability and security in Iraq would come from reconciling Iraq’s feuding political groups, he said.
Obama met Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and American military commanders in Baghdad on Monday. Earlier on Tuesday he met Sunni Arab tribal leaders in western Anbar province, whose decision to fight al Qaeda helped change the course of the conflict in Iraq.
Obama said that Anbar tribal leaders and the province’s governor had expressed concern about a potential “precipitous drawdown” of U.S. troops.
He said this was not what he was proposing. “What I propose is a steady, deliberate drawdown over the course of 16 months and I emphasized that to them,” he added.
He also acknowledged that the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, General David Petraeus, had expressed opposition to a withdrawal timetable but said as president he would have to look at the broader picture.
Jordan was the next stage on a multi-nation tour that will include Israel, France, Germany and Britain.
U.S. strategy in Iraq and troop numbers are central issues in the election race between the Illinois senator and Republican candidate John McCain.
In London, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown told parliament he expected to see a “fundamental change of mission” for British troops in southern Iraq early next year.
The improved security situation in the Basra region meant the 4,100 British troops based there would focus on training Iraqi troops before gradually withdrawing from Iraq, he said.
Maliki told Obama and other U.S. lawmakers traveling with him on Monday he hoped U.S. combat troops could be out of Iraq in 2010, a goal not far from Obama’s own pledge on withdrawals.
With violence at its lowest level since early 2004, Iraqi officials have spoken with growing confidence about timetables and timeframes for U.S. forces to leave.
“Iraqis want an aspirational timeline, with a clear date, for the redeployment of American combat forces,” said a statement from Obama and the lawmakers traveling with him.
“(Maliki) stated his hope that U.S. combat forces could be out of Iraq in 2010.”
McCain himself appeared to leave the door open on Monday to a large-scale drawdown of U.S. troops in the next two years if conditions on the ground were suitable, saying success had made it possible for troops to return home.
His spokesman said the senator’s comments did not reflect a shift in position. McCain has long argued against setting a timetable for a U.S. troop withdrawal.
Some Iraqis believe their security forces are not ready and that a premature removal of U.S. troops in Iraq could tip the country back into widespread violence.
Maliki and U.S. President George W. Bush agreed last week to set a “time horizon” for reducing U.S. forces in Iraq, the closest Washington has come to acknowledging the need for a withdrawal timeframe.
Additional reporting by Tim Cocks, Dean Yates, Khalid al-Ansary and Waleed Ibrahim in Baghdad and by Kate Kelland in London; Writing by Mohammed Abbas and Dean Yates; editing by Sami Aboudi