KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine | Republican Sen. John McCain on Monday drew closer to his Democratic presidential opponent’s timetable on Iraq, saying that U.S. troops could be “largely withdrawn” in two years, even as Sen. Barack Obama met with Iraqi leaders who now embrace his withdrawal time frame and with the architect of the troop surge he opposed.
Mr. McCain continued to hammer Mr. Obama for repeatedly railing against last year’s troop increase, challenging him to admit he “has been completely wrong” about the surge and its success.
But looking forward, the two candidates are now no longer that far apart on the future of troop deployments in Iraq.
“I think they could be largely withdrawn” within two years, Mr. McCain said at Walker’s Point, standing with former President George H.W. Bush, who held a campaign fundraiser for the candidate at his sprawling Maine seaside compound.
“Of course, as we all know, it has to be based on conditions on the ground,” the senator added. “It’s fragile, but it has to be based on conditions on the ground. Whenever you win wars - and we are winning - we will be able to come home.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Obama refused to back the surge, saying even in hindsight, with U.S. casualties down and indications of stability up, he still would have opposed it.
“What I am absolutely convinced of is that at the time, we had to change the political debate, because the view of the Bush administration at that time is one that I just disagreed with,” he told ABC News in an interview from Iraq.
Making his first trip to Iraq in more than two years, Mr. Obama met with Gen. David H. Petraeus, the architect of the surge, a day after Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said a time frame for withdrawal could be dangerous.
Mr. Obama said Gen. Petraeus expressed “deep concerns” about a timetable that doesn’t take conditions into account, but said as president his job would be to balance commanders’ thoughts with the broader national security interests of the country.
Mr. Obama said he will not “get boxed into what I consider two false choices” - an inflexible withdrawal timetable on the one hand, and the Bush strategy on the other.
Mr. Obama has advocated a full pullout of troops within 16 months of taking office, which would be June 2010. Mr. McCain’s comments Monday mean he sees troops “largely” out of Iraq by July 2010.
And as Mr. McCain now talks more definitively of timetables - something he has steadfastly opposed - Mr. Obama is also moving away from his firm vow to withdraw regardless of ground conditions. The Democrat has said he will “refine” his position and declared that conditions on the ground and advice from military leaders will be major factors in his pace of withdrawal.
Even Republicans said Mr. Obama’s trip was going well, but Mr. McCain told reporters he didn’t think Mr. Obama’s trip was stealing attention and “doesn’t in the slightest undercut” his own message.
“Senator Obama could not have gone to Iraq as he did because he opposed the surge,” said Mr. McCain, who ridiculed the senator last week for announcing his strategy there before his visit. “It was the surge that is winning the war. He opposed it. He said it wouldn’t succeed. He has still yet to say that it has succeeded.
“If we had done what he wanted us to do, we would have lost,” Mr. McCain said.
In Portland, Maine, later Monday, Mr. McCain said his steadfast support of the surge - even at the expense of his political ambitions - proves he can be commander in chief.
“That’s what judgment’s all about. That’s why I’m qualified to lead. I don’t need any on-the-job training,” he said to thunderous applause from hundreds of supporters gathered outside the Maine Military Museum.
Mr. McCain insisted that his opponent, who opposed the Iraq war when it began in March 2003, “has been completely wrong,” and disparaged Mr. Obama as “someone who has no military experience whatsoever.”
While Mr. Obama opposed the surge in Iraq, he advocates a nearly identical increase of U.S. troops into Afghanistan to quell the same kind of ethnic violence that hampered Iraq’s political development two years ago. The Democrat argues that the resurgence of the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan makes that country the central front in America’s war on terror.
Mr. Obama’s visit to Iraq came just days after Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told a German magazine he supported the Democratic candidate’s timetable for a full U.S. withdrawal by summer 2010.
Iraq’s government spokesman Ali al Dabbagh reiterated the stance Monday, saying: “We are hoping that in 2010 that combat troops will withdraw from Iraq.”
Mr. McCain, like President Bush, has opposed setting a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, although Mr. Bush also appears ready to begin establishing a framework, talking last week about a “general time horizon” for an exit by U.S. combat troops.
Earlier the elder Mr. Bush, 84, and like Mr. McCain a war hero, offered strong backing for the 71-year-old former Navy pilot. “We are strongly supporting him,” he said. “My respect for him knows no bounds.”
Mr. Bush said he was not advising Mr. McCain on the war. “I don’t follow the news day to day,” he said with a laugh, adding that “I defer” to Mr. McCain on Iraq.
Stephen Dinan reported from Washington.