WASHINGTON (AFP) — Iraq's hardening demand for a pullout deadline for US troops on Tuesday sent shockwaves through the White House campaign, putting Republican hopeful John McCain on the defensive.
McCain, who says it is too early to leave Iraq, said US pull-backs must be dictated by security conditions, after Democrat Barack Obama said the Iraqi government now shared his desire for a timetable for withdrawals.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said on Monday that Iraq was seeking such an arrangement in talks with Washington on the future US force structure in the country.
Iraq hardened its position on Tuesday, saying it would reject any security pact with Washington unless it set a date for the pullout of US-led foreign soldiers -- a condition turned down by President George W. Bush.
But McCain, who has made staunch support for the US troop "surge" escalation strategy a centerpiece of his campaign, said that recent security gains should not be put at risk by an artificial timetable.
"The Iraqis have made it very clear, including the meetings I had with the president and foreign minister of Iraq, that it is based on conditions on the ground," McCain said in an interview with MSNBC.
"I have always said we will come home with honor and with victory and not through a set timetable," he said, adding that Iraqis would act in their national interest and the United States would act in its own interests.
"We will withdraw, but ... the victory we have achieved so far is fragile and (the redeployment) has to be dictated by events and on the ground," McCain said, mirroring the Pentagon's line on the issue.
The Obama campaign responded by bringing up a comment by McCain from 2004, when he said that if a sovereign Iraqi government asked American forces to quit Iraq, "it's obvious we would have to leave."
"The American people need a strategy for succeeding in Iraq, not just a strategy for staying," said Obama foreign policy advisor Susan Rice.
"John McCain's stubborn refusal to adjust to events on the ground just shows that he has no plan to end this war," she said.
Obama and McCain have been waging a fierce political battle over their plans for US policy in Iraq, an issue that looks set to dominate the presidency of whichever of them emerges triumphant from November's election.
McCain has stated he would aim to get US troops out of Iraq by 2013, but said on one occasion repeatedly used by the Obama campaign that he would be prepared to stay 100 years in a peacekeeping capacity.
Obama has pledged to get US combat troops out within 16 months, and this week denied claims he was wavering on that undertaking in the light of security gains in Iraq.
On Monday, Obama cast Maliki's remarks as in line with his own policy on Iraq, which McCain has branded a strategy for defeat.
"I think that his statement is consistent with my view about how withdrawals should proceed," the Illinois senator said.
"I think it's encouraging ... that the prime minister himself now acknowledges that in cooperation with Iraq, it's time for American forces to start sending out a timeframe for the withdrawal."
Maliki told Arab ambassadors in Abu Dhabi on Monday he was pressing for such a timetable in negotiations with Washington on an agreement on the status of US forces in Iraq beyond 2008.
On Tuesday, national security advisor Muwaffaq al-Rubaie stiffened the Iraq stand.
"We will not accept any memorandum of understanding if it does not give a specific date for a complete withdrawal of foreign troops," he told reporters in the holy city of Najaf.
The US State Department has rejected Iraq's demand for a pullout date, saying any withdrawal will be based on conditions on the ground.
The White House meanwhile said that despite the discord it still aimed to reach a deal with Baghdad by the end of July.
Baghdad and Washington are negotiating a deal that would see the presence of US-led forces in Iraq beyond 2008 when the United Nations mandate which provides the legal basis for a foreign troop presence in Iraq expires.
The security pact, also known as a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), has to be signed by July 31 according to a previous agreement between Bush and Maliki.
There are currently 146,000 US troops in Iraq, down from nearly 170,000, according to the Pentagon.
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