Iraq has surged back towards the top of the presidential campaign agenda as attention shifts from the closing stages of the Democratic nomination race to the near-certain general election battle between John McCain and Barack Obama.
By Andrew Ward in Washington
The war has been overshadowed by other issues during each party’s primary contests but looks set to be a defining issue in November because of the starkly opposing views of the two likely nominees.
Mr McCain has stepped up his attacks against Mr Obama’s plans for withdrawal in recent days, as he attempts to transform his support for the unpopular war from a liability into an electoral advantage.
Mr Obama, the Democratic frontrunner, tentatively agreed on Thursday to visit Iraq before the election after days of criticism from his Republican rival for having failed to set foot in the country since violence started to decline last year.
The Democratic frontrunner reacted quickly to quash the issue after the Republican National Committee launched an online clock showing the number of days – 872 yesterday – since Mr Obama was last in Iraq.
Mr McCain said Mr Obama’s decision was “long overdue” and voiced hope that he would drop his “ideological” commitment to “surrender” after witnessing the progress made by US forces.
“I’m confident that when he goes he will change his position on the conflict in Iraq because he will see the success that has been achieved on the ground and the consequences of failure if we set dates for withdrawal,” he told reporters.
Mr Obama has visited Iraq once since the war began, compared with eight trips by his Republican rival.
Mr McCain ignited the issue on Monday by inviting his Democratic rival on a joint trip to Iraq but Mr Obama dismissed that suggestion as a ‘political stunt”.
”I don’t think John McCain or the Bush administration have a very strong argument to make about their foreign policy, so they’re going to try to come up with diversions or distractions and not argue the substance,” Mr Obama said.
Mr McCain has sought to connect the debate over Iraq to his broader criticism of Mr Obama’s alleged inexperience and naivety on foreign policy, which has emerged as the main Republican line of attack against the relatively youthful Illinois senator.
Addressing supporters in Nevada this week, Mr McCain asked why Mr Obama was willing to hold unconditional talks with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad yet had failed to sit down with General David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, except in congressional hearings.
Republicans have hammered Mr Obama for his willingness to engage unconditionally with Iran and other US foes, leading him to qualify his stance by promising thorough “preparations” before any summit with a hostile leader.
Mr Obama has fought back by linking Mr McCain to the “failed” foreign policy of George W. Bush, whose approval rating is close to record lows for a president.
In response, Mr McCain has sharpened his criticism of the administration’s handling of Iraq in an attempt to distance himself from the president and persuade voters that better leadership would bring victory in Iraq.
Mr McCain argues that he was critical of strategy in Iraq from an early stage and advocated increasing US force levels long before last year’s troop “surge”. “People will judge me on my record, including my opposition for the failed strategy in Iraq and support for the current strategy, which is succeeding,” he told reporters this week.
“Americans are frustrated with this effort. But over time they will support it when they realise that to leave would be a catastrophe that would lead to greater sacrifice in blood and treasure in future.”