Sen. Barack Obama, edging away from a long-held position, tacitly acknowledged the success of the Iraq troop-surge strategy during an appearance Tuesday before the country’s largest organization of combat veterans.
“Let’s be clear, our troops have completed every mission they’ve been given,” Mr. Obama said at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Orlando, Fla., where the likely Democratic presidential nominee courted military voters who are expected to play a pivotal role in several swing states. “They have created the space for political reconciliation.”
It was the closest Mr. Obama - who has long opposed the surge - has come to agreeing with President Bush or likely Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain on the Iraq strategy. But he stressed that he opposed the Iraq war in 2002 and still views the five-year-old mission as a waste of U.S. lives and money.
Mr. Bush said the goal of the surge, which beginning in early 2007 boosted the number of U.S. troops in Iraq from about 140,000 to more than 160,000, was to quell rampant sectarian attacks and give the fledgling government in Baghdad “breathing room” to forge national reconciliation.
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Mr. Obama of Illinois said the U.S. should turn its attention to winning the war in Afghanistan and hunting down al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. He also stressed his support for more health and education benefits to veterans.
Appealing to military families is a key component to Mr. Obama’s strategy to win states such as Virginia and North Carolina, which have not elected a Democrat for president in decades but which the campaign thinks it can pick off along with a few others in the solidly Republican South.
The challenge confronting Mr. Obama as he reaches out to military votes was apparent at the convention, where large crowds milled about outside the auditorium with no interest in hearing the speech.
“Lies, lies, lies,” Betty Morris, 71, an auxiliary grand president from Charlotte, N.C., shouted at Mr. Obama’s visage on the jumbo screen as she walked out of the hall. “I don’t want to watch that sorry rascal. He won’t do nothing for the veterans.”
Miss Morris, sporting American flag earrings and a top trimmed with red, white and blue, said the only Democrat for whom she ever voted was John F. Kennedy. She called the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts - a decorated Vietnam veteran - a “scumbag.”
The crowd of about 3,000 people was dwarfed by the cavernous convention hall. Rows of seats were empty because attendees left the convention early ahead of Tropical Storm Fay.
Mr. Obama said the reduced violence in Iraq was only partly because of the surge. He said a cease-fire by Shi’ite militants and Sunni tribes turning against al Qaeda contributed to a dramatic drop in the number of attacks.
Whatever the cause, he said, the relative calm in Iraq bolstered his plan for a 16-month pullout timetable.
“It’s time to press the Iraqis to take responsibility for their future,” Mr. Obama said. “The best way to do that is a responsible redeployment of our combat brigades, carried out in close consultation with commanders on the ground.”
Mr. McCain of Arizona, who early in the war championed a surge strategy, had criticized Mr. Obama for ignoring its success tamping down violence in Iraq. The McCain campaign also criticized Mr. Obama for now embracing the surge.
A day earlier, Mr. McCain told the convention that Mr. Obama’s recent vacillation on the surge reflected his “ambition to be president [but] what’s less apparent is the judgment to be commander in chief.”
Mr. Obama said his opponent was “suggesting, as he has so many times, that I put personal ambition before my country.” He said Mr. McCain had stooped to an old-style campaign of personal attacks.
“I will let no one question my love of this country. I love America, so do you and so does John McCain,” he said, prompting applause.
The McCain campaign said the candidate never questioned Mr. Obama’s patriotism.
“Barack Obama has made it clear that unconditional withdrawal in Iraq is more important to him than victory in Iraq,” McCain campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds said. “That’s not a criticism of his patriotism. That’s a criticism of his judgment.”
On the vice-presidential front, the Obama camp announced it will hold an event Saturday in Springfield, Ill., at the old State Capitol where he announced his candidacy 18 months ago - a move that is ramping up speculation about it being used to announce his running mate.
Obama aides said the event “will begin the roll-in” to the Democratic National Convention, which starts Monday in Denver.
“What better place to do this than the place where he launched his historic candidacy and campaign in February of ‘07,” Obama campaign spokeswoman Linda Douglass said.
She would not confirm the report by the Chicago Sun-Times on Tuesday afternoon that the event would be to showcase his vice-presidential selection, but the timing indicates that the No. 2 pick would be in attendance.
Whoever accepts the No. 2 spot on the ticket will formally accept the nomination Aug. 27 at the convention.
Christina Bellantoni, reporting from Florida, contributed to this story.