COLUMBUS, Ohio (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate John McCain said on Thursday he believes the Iraq war can be won by 2013, leaving a functioning democracy there and allowing most U.S. troops to come home.
It was the first time the Arizona senator has said when U.S. troops could be withdrawn from Iraq. His speech came as the House of Representatives voted to set a goal of withdrawing all troops by the end of next year and defeated legislation to fund the war.
The five-year war is unpopular with the U.S. public and McCain’s Democratic rivals for the White House, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, have pledged to begin bringing U.S. troops home right away.
McCain has called such promises reckless and agrees with President George W. Bush that troop levels should be governed by conditions on the ground.
McCain, who will run against either Obama or Clinton in November to succeed Bush in January 2009, laid out a scenario he thought was achievable within his first four-year term.
“By January 2013, America has welcomed home most of the servicemen and women who have sacrificed terribly so that America might be secure in her freedom,” McCain said in a speech in Columbus, Ohio.
“The Iraq war has been won. Iraq is a functioning democracy, although still suffering from the lingering effects of decades of tyranny and centuries of sectarian tension. Violence still occurs, but it is spasmodic and much reduced,” McCain said.
Under that scenario, U.S. troops would still be present, but those soldiers would not play a “direct combat role” because Iraqi forces would be capable of providing order.
Speaking with reporters after the speech, McCain insisted he was not talking about a timetable for withdrawal but discussing what he believed would be achieved.
“It’s not a timetable. It’s victory, which I have always predicted,” he said. “I‘m saying that we are succeeding in Iraq and we will have succeeded further in Iraq in 2013.”
The two House votes on Iraq were mostly symbolic. The Senate is expected to resurrect war funding next week and Bush is virtually certain to veto any legislation setting troop withdrawal targets that reaches his desk.
McCain also predicted that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden would be captured or killed within four years and the militant group’s presence in Afghanistan would be reduced to remnants.
On the economy, he promised taxpayers the option of filing under a simpler system than the current multilayered code and said he would overhaul government spending practices that have led to “extravagantly wasted money.”
Ohio is expected to be a hard-fought state in the general election and McCain’s visit there came as Obama, the Democratic front-runner, moves closer to his party’s nomination.
Sen. Joe Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, criticized McCain’s speech.
“He laid out what his dream was ...without offering one single solitary concrete way in which he would accomplish any of the things he stated,” the Delaware Democrat said.
Obama has charged that McCain wants to keep the United States in Iraq for 100 years. He often refers to a comment McCain made in January, when asked whether the United States would be in Iraq for as long as 50 years.
“Maybe a hundred,” McCain said, but likened that long-term presence to the one the United States has now in South Korea.
He has since said the remark has been taken out of context. McCain insists he was not talking about continuing the war for decades but about a troop presence aimed at maintaining regional stability similar to the U.S. deployments in Japan, Germany and South Korea. (Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell in Washington; Editing by