- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 20, 2008

AUSTIN, Texas | Sen. Barack Obama‘s first journey to Afghanistan was highlighted Saturday by a key Iraqi leader endorsing the Illinois Democrat’s timeline for U.S. troop withdrawal.

The visit - kept secret until Mr. Obama arrived in the war zone - kicked off his tour of the Middle East and Europe and signified the balance he must strike between policy meetings with world leaders and building international support through his popularity.

“I’m more interested in listening than doing a lot of talking,” the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee said as he left Washington.

The Obama campaign described his weeklong trip as a “full agenda with key leaders” and said his goal was to “deepen even further foreign relationships” and talk about “enhanced cooperation” with U.S. allies to tackle global problems such as climate change and nuclear proliferation.

The overseas trip was boosted Saturday when Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told German magazine Der Spiegel he agrees with Mr. Obama’s plan to pull out combat troops within 16 months.

“U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right time frame for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes,” Mr. al-Maliki said.

Mr. Obama is expected to travel to Iraq and meet with the Iraqi leader during his trip, details of which have been kept private for security reasons.

The Illinois senator visited troops in Kuwait on Friday and was in Afghanistan on Saturday. He recently said the United States should send more troops to Afghanistan.

He traveled with an adviser from his Senate office who served in Iraq as a naval reservist and Sens. Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat, and Chuck Hagel, Nebraska Republican.

Mr. Obama was asked what he hoped to learn from the trip, which was paid for in part by taxpayer dollars since it is a congressional delegation.

“I’m looking forward to seeing what the situation on the ground is,” he said. “I want to, obviously, talk to the commanders and get a sense, both in Afghanistan and in Baghdad of, you know, what their biggest concerns are. And I want to thank our troops for the heroic work that they’ve been doing.”

Mr. Obama visited with soldiers at Jalalabad airfield, in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province. The delegation also met with top military leaders and troops at Bagram Air Base, the main U.S. military base in the country, according to a U.S. military officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

It was his first visit to Afghanistan and occurred amid criticism from his Republican opponent - Sen. John McCain of Arizona - that he had recommended policy for the region without ever having visited the area.

Lt. Col. Bill Nutter, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Kuwait, said Mr. Obama spoke to soldiers, constituents and senior military leadership. During the two-hour visit, the officers gave him an overview of operations, then Mr. Obama shook hands, answered questions, posed for photos and played a little basketball.

He was expected to meet with President Hamid Karzai during his Afghanistan stop before heading to Iraq.

In his interview with Der Speigel, Mr. al-Maliki said he’d rather stay out of the U.S. presidential race.

“Whoever is thinking about the shorter term is closer to reality,” he said of his preference between the candidates. “Artificially extending the stay of U.S. troops would cause problems.”

The interview was published a day after the White House disclosed that President Bush and Mr. al-Maliki had agreed to set a “time horizon” for pulling troops from Iraq.

Top Obama adviser Susan Rice issued a statement saying the al-Maliki comments were welcome.

“This presents an important opportunity to transition to Iraqi responsibility, while restoring our military and increasing our commitment to finish the fight in Afghanistan,” she said.

Mr. McCain, who took the weekend off from campaigning, did not offer a personal response to the interview.

McCain foreign-policy adviser Randy Scheunemann responded late in the day after the Democrats mocked the Republican’s silence on the major development.

“The difference between [the candidates] is that Barack Obama advocates an unconditional withdrawal that ignores the facts on the ground and the advice of our top military commanders,” he said. “John McCain believes withdrawal must be based on conditions on the ground. Prime Minister [al-Maliki] has repeatedly affirmed the same view, and did so again today. Timing is not as important as whether we leave with victory and honor, which is of no apparent concern to Barack Obama.”

Mr. Scheunemann highlighted Mr. Obama’s opposition to the surge of troops last year, a move Mr. McCain supported, which has helped to reduce violence in Iraq, saying: “We would not be in the position to discuss a responsible withdrawal today if Senator Obama’s views had prevailed.”

In the coming days, Mr. Obama will stop in Jordan and Israel before heading to Europe for meetings in Berlin, Paris and London.

While in the Middle East, Mr. Obama will meet with King Abdullah in Jordan, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

He will hold a major public event in Germany and will have private briefings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicholas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

He also will meet with several political opposition leaders, including Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the liberal movement in Germany, the head of the conservative Israeli opposition and Tory leader David Cameron in England.

Mr. Obama and his top aides repeated before the trip that they would not be setting any policy during the tour, with the senator telling a reporter, “We have one president at a time, so it’s the president’s job to deliver those messages.”

But polls of Europeans indicate the Democrat is widely popular across the pond.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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