CHICAGO (Reuters) - Presidential foes John McCain and Barack Obama clashed on Monday over the U.S. role in Iraq, with McCain questioning his rival’s judgment as Obama pushed for a new strategy to boost troop levels in Afghanistan.
Obama, a Democratic senator from Illinois and early war critic, defended his opposition to President George W. Bush’s troop increases in Iraq and repeated his call for a 16-month timetable for withdrawing combat troops.
His campaign said he will make a speech on Iraq on Tuesday, before a scheduled visit to Iraq and Afghanistan sometime within the next few weeks.
“Ending the war is essential to meeting our broader strategic goals, starting in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the Taliban is resurgent and Al Qaeda has a safe haven,” Obama said in a column in The New York Times.
Obama proposed adding two U.S. combat brigades, about 9,000 troops, to the 36,000 troops already in Afghanistan.
“Iraq is not the central front in the war on terrorism, and it never has been,” he said. “I would not hold our military, our resources and our foreign policy hostage to a misguided desire to maintain permanent bases in Iraq.”
McCain, a Republican senator from Arizona and advocate of the war, criticized Obama’s stance on Iraq, particularly his opposition to the surge of U.S. troops there.
“Senator Obama was wrong when he said it wouldn’t succeed, he was wrong when he said we’ve lost the war and he is wrong today when he says that Iraq is not the central battleground,” McCain said in Phoenix.
The future of Iraq promises to be a central issue in the November election battle for the White House between McCain and Obama. Most public opinion polls rank it as the second most important issue, behind the economy, for U.S. voters.
Obama’s visit to Iraq, where he has only been once, and Afghanistan follows repeated criticism from McCain that he should visit the area and talk to commanders.
McCain said he also would consider putting more troops in Afghanistan.
‘HE WAS WRONG’
“But the major point here is that Senator Obama refuses to acknowledge that he was wrong,” McCain said.
Obama welcomed Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s suggestion to include a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops in an agreement under discussion that would set the terms for the American military presence in Iraq.
He criticized McCain for refusing to embrace it.
“This is not a strategy for success -- it is a strategy for staying that runs contrary to the will of the Iraqi people, the American people and the security interests of the United States,” Obama said.
“That is why, on my first day in office, I would give the military a new mission: ending this war,” he said.
No dates have been disclosed for Obama’s expected visit to Iraq and Afghanistan because of security concerns.
Accompanying Obama on the trip will be Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, a Democrat, and Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican. Both have military backgrounds and have been vocal critics of the Iraq war.
Obama’s speech on Tuesday will focus on U.S. concerns in Iraq and the region, his campaign said.
Obama said this month he might refine his plan to bring combat troops home within 16 months of taking office if conditions on the ground changed.
McCain, a Vietnam War hero, has attacked Obama as too inexperienced to serve as U.S. commander in chief. He said Obama was shifting positions on Iraq.
“We are winning,” he said, adding he looked forward to hearing from Obama about his meeting with Gen. David Petraeus, U.S. commander in Iraq.
“And if we still adopt Sen. Obama’s proposal for a set date for withdrawal, this very fragile success that we have achieved will be jeopardized. That’s what Gen. Petraeus says, and that’s what Osama bin Laden says,” McCain said.