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Democrats blast McCain on U.S. future in Iraq

WASHINGTON – Congressional Democrats on Wednesday opened fire on comments from Republicans – including presumptive GOP nominee John McCain – that equate the U.S. military’s future in Iraq to the presence of U.S. bases in Germany, Japan and South Korea.

The issue erupted after Sen. McCain, R-Ariz., said in an interview with NBC’s “Today” show that the timetable for U.S. forces to come home from Iraq is not of great concern as long as U.S. casualties in the Middle East fall to levels comparable to those in allied countries where U.S. forces have been stationed for decades without incident.

“That’s not too important,” McCain said, when asked by host Matt Lauer if he could better estimate when U.S. forces would come home. “What’s important is the casualties in Iraq,” he said. “Americans are in South Korea, Americans are in Japan, American troops are in Germany. That’s all fine.”

McCain has long emphasized bringing U.S. military casualties down in Iraq to bolster the American public’s commitment to stabilizing Iraq. But even if McCain’s statement Wednesday differed little from his past pronouncements, it came at a delicate diplomatic juncture. The Bush administration is trying to hammer out bilateral agreements governing the future status of U.S. forces in Iraq, to take effect when the current U.N. mandate expires at the end of December. The two accords – a status-of-forces agreement and a broader security “framework” – have come under sharp criticism in Iraq because of administration proposals to retain unilateral control over U.S. military operations as well as the ability to detain Iraqi citizens while providing legal immunity for U.S. security contractors. Iraqi politicians have also charged that the United States plans to maintain up to 60 military bases there.

Debate over the agreements has grown heated in Baghdad and has drawn criticism in Congress, where many lawmakers have challenged the administration’s contention that the accords do not require congressional approval. Democrats have said Bush is attempting to tie the hands of his successor on future Iraq policy.

“It’s pretty clear their intentions are that we put in a basing system in Iraq that parallels the Korea-Japan history,” said Sen. James Webb, D-Va., who is pressing the administration to submit the agreements for Senate ratification. “The difference is, Iraq is not Korea or Japan. … The history of every single outside occupation of Iraq over the last thousand years argues against that logic.”

McCain, who has largely stayed out of the Capitol Hill debate over the two agreements, joined it Wednesday with his “Today” show comments. Democrats seized on a chance to challenge him on national security.

“It is unbelievably out of touch and inconsistent with the needs and concerns of Americans, particularly the families of the troops out there,” Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said in a conference call convened by the campaign of Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. “It is the most important thing in the world to them that they come home.”

Susan Rice, a senior foreign policy adviser to Obama, accused McCain of “a real disturbing pattern of confusing the basic facts of Iraq.”

Randy Scheunemann, the McCain campaign’s top national security adviser, said Democrats are twisting McCain’s comments to cover up their failure to acknowledge U.S. military gains in Iraq.

“This is another partisan attempt to distort John McCain’s words, to distract the American people from the fact that John McCain has been courageous and right about the surge in Iraq, and Barack Obama has unfortunately been consistently wrong,” said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn.