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Democratic candidates squabble over Iraq war

Reuters | June 19, 2007
John Whitesides

The Democratic presidential contenders squabbled over Iraq on Tuesday, with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton a target of criticism for her 2002 vote to authorize the war and her suggestion some U.S. troops may be there for years.

The leading Democrats in the 2008 race touted their judgment and their plans to bring home the troops during separate appearances before two of the party's biggest voting blocs: union members and liberal activists.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said his "fundamental difference" with leading rivals like Clinton, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and former vice presidential nominee John Edwards was his commitment to not leaving any troops behind in Iraq once combat forces are withdrawn.


"Where I differentiate with the other candidates is I leave no residual forces. And my view is this: We cannot do the hard diplomatic work in Iraq until our forces are withdrawn," he said at a forum sponsored by the 1.4 million-member AFSCME labor union.

Obama, an early opponent of the war, indirectly chided rivals Clinton, Edwards, Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware for voting in the Senate to authorize the Iraq war in 2002.

"We knew back then this war was a mistake. We knew back then that it was a dangerous diversion from the struggle against the terrorists who attacked us on September 11th," Obama, who was not in the Senate at the time of the vote, told activists at the liberal Campaign for America's Future conference.

Clinton, a New York senator who leads Democrats in national polls ahead of the November 2008 election, has refused to apologize for voting to authorize the war. Dodd, Biden and Edwards, who was a senator at the time, apologized and said the vote was a mistake.

Clinton has become a strong critic of the increasingly unpopular war and promises to withdraw U.S. combat troops from Iraq if she wins the White House. But she said there are security interests in the region that could require a long-term troop presence.

"We will have to protect our interests," she said. "If the Iraqi government does get its act together, we may have a continuing training mission. But that's a limited number of troops with very specific missions -- no permanent bases, no permanent occupation."

The Democrats were cheered by about 2,000 American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees members, with Obama, Clinton and Edwards winning the biggest ovations. Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio roused the crowd with a call for cancellation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Dodd, Biden and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel did not appear at the union event. The union hopes to make an endorsement and throw its grass roots and organizing muscle behind a candidate in the fall.

Obama, Richardson, Gravel and Edwards spoke at the liberal conference, with Clinton, who was booed at the conference last year because of her Iraq vote, scheduled for Wednesday.

Richardson said Clinton, Obama, Dodd and Biden all voted for an Iraq funding bill earlier this year that would have allowed a president to leave troops in Iraq indefinitely. Edwards, he said, voiced support for the bill.

The Democratic-controlled Congress passed one version of an Iraq funding bill earlier this year with timelines for troop withdrawals. That measure was vetoed by President George W. Bush, and the Senate ultimately approved a funding bill without timelines.

Biden was the only Democratic presidential contender to vote for the bill without timelines.

Edwards said he would keep some U.S. troops in the region but the only troops he would leave in Iraq would be guarding the embassy.

"We probably need a rapid deployment force in Kuwait. If the Jordanians would allow us to station troops there, we may want to put troops in Jordan," Edwards said at the AFSCME forum.

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