- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 31, 2008

MILWAUKEE (AP) - Republican John McCain’s estimate of U.S. troop levels in Iraq touched off a squabble with Democrat Barack Obama yesterday, the latest turn in the presidential rivals’ escalating disagreement over the war.

The likely Republican Party nominee told an audience Thursday: “We have drawn down to pre-surge levels. Basra, Mosul and now Sadr City are quiet.”

Mr. Obama responded: “That’s not true and anyone running for commander in chief should know better.”

In fact, U.S. troop levels are not yet down to levels before President Bush’s troop increase last year, a strategy shift Mr. McCain had pushed for some four years before the president authorized it.

There were 15 combat brigades in Iraq before the increase began. Five were added, and the United States has been reducing numbers since December. As of yesterday, there are 17 brigades in Iraq. Another brigade will depart in June and the plan is to pull out another in July, returning the level to 15.

Prior to the increase, there were 130,000 to 135,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. As of this week, that number was 155,000, and the Pentagon plans to drop it to 140,000 by the end of July.

The McCain campaign blamed a parsing of verb tense and semantics. But McCain, himself, insisted yesterday that he didn’t misspeak.

“Of course not. I said we’ve drawn down,” the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee said at a news conference. “The rest of them will be home at the end of July.”

He added: “We have drawn down; we will continue to drawdown; and I hope that Gen. [David H.] Petraeus will see fit to recommend for the consideration of the president of the United States an additional drawdown after the end of July.”

Mr. Obama seized on Mr. McCain’s insistence that he didn’t misspeak. “Today, Senator McCain refused to correct his mistake,” Mr. Obama said in remarks prepared for a rally yesterday in Great Falls, Mont. “Just like George Bush, when he was presented with the truth, he just dug in and refused to admit his mistake.”

Mr. McCain tried to turn the tables on Mr. Obama, reading a quote from October 2007 in which Mr. Obama said he thought that the increase strategy would exacerbate sectarian violence. Top U.S. commanders have credited the force increase with helping curb violence.

“Clearly, Senator Obama made exactly the wrong judgment about whether the surge would succeed in Iraq,” Mr. McCain said. “He has no fundamental understanding of the entire situation that warranted the surge.”

Mr. McCain’s comments - and Democratic criticism of them - continued a week of haggling over the Iraq war with Mr. Obama, who is expected to clinch the Democratic nomination. The war is certain to be a major issue in the general election because Mr. McCain advocates a continued troop presence in Iraq while Mr. Obama calls for a withdrawal.

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