New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson yesterday repeated his call to leave "zero troops" behind after withdrawing from Iraq, trying to distinguish himself from other Democratic candidates during two presidential forums.
Mr. Richardson, polling in fourth place, told liberal activists attending the Take Back America conference that the number of troops that stay in Iraq is a "fundamental difference" among the candidates.
The front-runners for the 2008 Democratic nomination, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, said yesterday that they would start withdrawing troops right away if elected, but each would leave some in place. Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina said he would pull 50,000 combat troops immediately and gradually bring home the rest.
Mr. Richardson said that other than to protect the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, "I would leave zero troops behind. Not a single one." The other Democrats have supported a withdrawal timeline with "loopholes" that would allow "an undetermined number of troops in Iraq indefinitely," he said.
Mr. Richardson told members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union that his is the "clearest position" and asserted that "we cannot do the hard diplomatic work in Iraq until our forces are withdrawn."
Mrs. Clinton said at the AFSCME forum that she would start bringing troops home immediately. Asked about leaving troops in Iraq, she said the United States "may still have remaining vital national security interests ... [and] we cannot let al Qaeda have a staging ground in Iraq."
"But that's a limited number of troops with very specific missions — no permanent bases, no permanent occupation," she added.
Mrs. Clinton speaks today to Take Back America attendees, who booed her last year because she voted for the war in 2002.
Mr. Obama said phased troop redeployment will send a message to the Iraqis that there is "not going to be a military solution to the problems there."
"We have no good options in Iraq left. We've got bad options and worse options," he told AFSCME members. The best option, he added, is to ensure "we're as careful getting out as we were careless getting in."
He reminded the crowd he opposed the "senseless" war from its start, "even when it wasn't popular to say so."
Mr. Edwards said again yesterday that he was sorry for his 2002 war vote and called on Congress to force President Bush to end the conflict.
He said he would keep some troops in Iraq to protect the embassy, a naval presence in the Persian Gulf and some remaining in Kuwait or Jordan. "We're going to have to fortify our position in Afghanistan because things are going very badly [there]," he said.