AMMAN, Jordan – Sen. John McCain, in the midst of a trip to the Middle East that he hoped would help burnish his foreign policy expertise, incorrectly asserted that Iran is training and supplying al-Qaida in Iraq, confusing the Sunni insurgent group with the Shiite extremists whom U.S. officials believe are supported by their religious brethren in the neighboring country.
The mistake, which he quickly corrected after a brief whisper from a colleague, was an unwelcome stumble as McCain of Arizona, the all-but-certain Republican nominee for the White House, spends seven days in the Middle East and Europe.
His campaign asserts that McCain’s decades of foreign policy experience make him the candidate best equipped to lead the country in a time of international peril, and he has staked his bid in particular on his deep knowledge of the military and political situation in Iraq, frequently mocking his Democratic rivals for what he describes as a naive desire to pull troops out quickly. He is spending two days in Israel after 48 hours in Iraq, where he met with top Iraqi officials and U.S. military officers to assess progress there.
Standing with two of his Senate colleagues at the Citadel, a set of ancient ruins in downtown Amman, McCain told reporters that he is concerned about Iran’s influence in Iraq and cited a recently discovered cache of weapons that he said could be particularly lethal in being used to target Americans in the country.
“We continue to be concerned about Iranian (operatives) taking al-Qaida into Iran, training them and sending them back,” he said in comments after meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah II on Tuesday afternoon.
Pressed to elaborate, McCain said it is “common knowledge and has been reported in the media that al-Qaida is going back into Iran and receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran; that’s well known. And it’s unfortunate.”
A few moments later, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., standing just behind McCain, stepped forward and whispered in his ear. McCain then said, “I’m sorry, the Iranians are training extremists, not al-Qaida.”
The United States has long asserted that elements of Iran’s security forces have been training and supplying weapons to Iraq’s Shiite militias. Iran is an overwhelmingly Shiite country whose government has applauded the emergence of a Shiite-led government in Iraq but has denied supporting Shiite militias inside Iraq.
Al-Qaida in Iraq is a predominantly Sunni militant group that has been blamed for deadly mass killings of Shiites and attacks on U.S. forces. Some Sunni extremists consider Shiites to be heretics and therefore legitimate targets of attack. The schism between Islam’s Sunni and Shiite sects grew out of a dispute over the leadership of the faithful after the death of the prophet Muhammad in A.D. 632.
Democrats pointed out that McCain made the same assertion in a radio interview with talk show host Hugh Hewitt on Monday night, saying that “there are al-Qaida operatives that are taken back into Iran, given training as leaders, and they’re moving back into Iraq.”