WASHINGTON (AFP) — Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain fought a fierce political duel over Iraq Friday, in the latest testy escalation of their fast-evolving White House race.
As Obama edged closer to the Democratic nomination, each man questioned the other's qualifications to serve as commander in chief, sparring over the US troop surge escalation strategy, and future of the war.
The Obama camp pounced on a comment by McCain that the US troop garrison had already been pulled down to pre-surge levels, and complained the Republican used a picture of war commander General David Petraeus on a fundraising email.
McCain said in a Wisconsin town-hall meeting on Thursday that "we have drawn down to pre-surge levels," then denied on Friday denied he had misspoken.
"I know enough about the military and I know enough about history, this is about judgment and leadership," he said, and hammered Obama for failing to support the troop surge, launched in February last year.
"I supported the surge ... I was correct in saying that we could still win in Iraq and I'm proud of my record there.
"It's clear that Senator Obama had an entirely different viewpoint, thought that we couldn't succeed, was convinced we would fail."
But Obama, in remarks he was due to make in Montana later on Friday, said McCain's comments on troop levels were "not true."
"Anyone running for commander-in-chief should know better," Obama said.
"As the saying goes, you're entitled to your own view, but not your own facts.
"We've got around 150,000 troops in Iraq -- 20,000 more than we had before the surge.
"We have plans to get down to around 140,000 later this summer -- that's still more troops than we had in Iraq before the surge."
The US military in Baghdad on Thursday announced the withdrawal of the fourth brigade of "surge" troops. The fifth and final brigades in the 30,000 strong surge force is due to be out by July.
Senator Obama's team meanwhile accused McCain of using American troops as a political prop, after he sent out a fundraising email featuring a picture of him shaking hands with Petraeus.
"Sadly, it's straight out of the Bush playbook that John McCain would propose a political joint photo-opportunity in Iraq, and then use it as a prop to raise a few campaign dollars even as he misstates the number of troops serving on the ground," Obama supporter Senator John Kerry said.
The McCain email featured a scathing attack on Obama, who is within sight of capturing the Democratic nomination, with the last primaries looming in Puerto Rico, on Sunday, and Montana and South Dakota, on Tuesday.
"Senator Obama speaks openly about his willingness to sit down with our enemies and engage in open talks, but he hasn't gone to Iraq in over two years to meet with our leaders and see that progress is being made," it said.
McCain later admitted that his campaign had been wrong to use the image: "It won't happen again," he said.
Obama meanwhile faced new controvesy over events at his Chicago church, which previously battered his campaign over racially tinged rhetoric by his former pastor Jeremiah Wright.
Videos of a guest preacher, targeting Obama's Democratic foe Hillary Clinton on Sunday in blatantly racial terms, had her aides demanding action.
Father Michael Pfleger mocked the former first lady for appearing to cry days before the New Hampshire primary in January, saying she was upset because "'there is a black man stealing my show.'"
"And then out of nowhere came him, Barack Obama. And she said: 'Damn, where did you come from? I'm white, I'm entitled.'"
Obama, seeking to quell the controversy that could provide ammunition to Republican critics, issued a statement on Thursday night saying he was "deeply disappointed in Father Pfleger's divisive, backward-looking rhetoric."
The Clinton and Obama camps meanwhile geared up for Saturday's faceoff at the Democratic Party's rules and bylaws committee, to judge whether delegates from Florida and Michigan should be reinstated after a scheduling row.
While no outcome is likely to seriously dent Obama's delegate lead, Clinton needs her victories in the two states to be counted to buttress her case that she leads in the national popular vote after 51 valid contests.
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