Sen. Barack Obama yesterday called for the immediate withdrawal of American troops from Iraq at a steady pace, with all combat troops either at home or redeployed elsewhere by December 2008.
“We must get out strategically and carefully, removing troops from secure areas first, and keeping troops in more volatile areas until later, but our drawdown should proceed at a steady pace of one or two brigades each month,” Mr. Obama said.
A day after hearing the progress report from Army Gen. David H. Petraeus to Congress, Mr. Obama rejected the general’s recommendations and said Iraq’s government has failed to meet its own goals.
His withdrawal proposal reinforces the Iraq war as the major battleground among the Democratic presidential candidates, who have spent the campaign competing with each other for support from the party’s antiwar voters.
Yesterday, Mr. Obama’s adversaries said his plan doesn’t go far enough, with former Sen. John Edwards saying the pace of withdrawal moves too slowly and sounds too much like the general’s recommendation to President Bush to withdraw 30,000 troops by July.
“Taking credit for this gradual withdrawal is like taking credit for gravity,” Mr. Edwards said. “These 30,000 troops would have to be withdrawn anyway, unless the president extended tours to an unconscionable 18 months.”
Another Democratic candidate, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said Mr. Obama’s plan falls short because it would still leave some noncombat troops behind.
“Senator Obama has offered to turn the page in Iraq, but I think we need a new book,” Mr. Richardson said.
Even as Democrats try to outflank each other in embracing withdrawal, the Republican presidential field is holding firm in backing Gen. Petraeus’ strategy, with Sen. John McCain even calling it the “McCain surge” and posting a timeline on his Web site to prove he’s been calling for this type of military campaign for years.
Meanwhile former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney went straight at Mr. Obama, telling Fox News Channel the Democrat has disqualified himself from being president because of his timeline for withdrawal, coupled with other statements announcing he would take unilateral military action in Pakistan, an ally, and would meet with enemy leaders.
Mr. Obama has been calling for a troop withdrawal since January, but unlike his previous plan this drawdown would occur whether or not the Iraqi government meets benchmarks for improvement.
While some Democrats have criticized Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as a blockade to progress, Mr. Obama said Iraq’s structure is the problem, not the personalities.
“We shouldn’t be in the business of supporting coups, and remember, before Maliki, we said that we just needed to replace the last prime minister to make everything all right. It didn’t work,” Mr. Obama said in a speech at Ashford University in Clinton, Iowa.
“The problems in Iraq are bigger than one man. Iraq needs a new constitution.”
He proposed a constitutional convention to be convened with the United Nations, and said it should not adjourn until Iraq’s leaders reach a new accord on political reconciliation, coupled with new elections.
And Mr. Obama said the U.S. should accept a partition-style government if that is how the Iraqis want their nation constructed. But he also took a swipe at fellow Democratic contender Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, a prominent supporter of a partition, saying “it must be their choice. America should not impose the division of Iraq.”
Mr. Obama again chastised his fellow Senate Democrats in the race by highlighting their vote for the war. He opposed the war from the start and yesterday presented himself as being prescient about the war’s outcome.
“I spoke out against what I called ‘a rash war’ in Iraq. I worried about, ‘an occupation of undetermined length, with undetermined costs, and undetermined consequences,’ ” he said.
He also said he would engage Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Turkey in diplomatic talks to enter into a regional pact to end the conflict and increase funding to deal with the humanitarian crisis.
While not responding directly to Mr. Obama’s speech, Democratic front-runner Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton attacked the president’s withdrawal plan, which he plans to detail in a speech today.
“There will be the same number of troops in Iraq as there were one year ago. Mr. President, that is simply too little too late, and unacceptable to this Congress, and to the American people who have made clear their strong desire to bring our troops home, and end this war,” Mrs. Clinton said.