Democratic presidential contender John Edwards, who has stepped up attacks on rival Hillary Clinton for her plans to continue combat missions against Al Qaeda in Iraq, said yesterday that he would also carry out "expeditions" against that insurgent group - but from bases outside the country.
Edwards told Boston Globe editors that in case of civil war and to battle Al Qaeda, he would keep a quick reaction force of 4,000 to 5,000 troops in Kuwait and station others around the Middle East, including in Afghanistan and possibly Jordan.
He said, however, that ending the permanent military presence in Iraq - what he calls an occupation - is a significant distinction between him and Clinton. Keeping troops in Iraq is "like putting a target on the foreheads of American combat troops who stay there," Edwards said.
"We're battling Al Qaeda all over the world right now and we don't occupy countries to do it," he said. "We don't have to occupy Iraq."
But a Clinton spokesman, Phil Singer, said Edwards's comments contradicted statements he made at debates and on the campaign trail.
"You can't end combat missions and go after Al Qaeda. That's a combat mission," Singer said.
At the most recent debate last month, Edwards said, "Combat missions ended. Combat troops out of Iraq, period."
A spokesman for Edwards, Eric Schultz, said "whether or not troops are based in Iraq makes all the difference in whether it's a combat mission or not."
As president, Edwards says he would immediately withdraw 40,000 to 50,000 combat troops and bring the remaining troops home by the end of his first year in office, with the exception of a small military presence to protect the US Embassy. He said he believes a withdrawal would improve the prospects for political reconciliation in Iraq and for regional diplomacy to help stabilize the country, but acknowledged there are no guarantees.
"No one knows what's going to happen," Edwards said.
After a withdrawal, Edwards said, he would audit the contracts of Blackwater and other private security contractors in Iraq - "paid mercenaries roaming around in Iraq accountable to nobody," he called them - to determine whether they fleeced the government.
Blackwater, which has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Republican Party, is a prime example of the corrupt government in Washington, D.C., Edwards said.
During the interview, he criticized Washington lobbyists, including their role in derailing congressional efforts to close a loophole that allows executives of hedge funds and buyout firms to pay a lower tax rate than their secretaries and janitors. "It's a complete embarrassment," said Edwards, who until last year was an adviser for a New York hedge fund, Fortress Investment Group.
Edwards, a former trial lawyer who made millions representing poor, injured people, acknowledged that he has raised significant funds from Wall Street and special interest groups, including lawyers.
"I'm not claiming purity or holier-than-thou. . . . I don't claim to be the perfect messenger," Edwards said. "I do believe that all of us have gotten so accustomed to this that it feels okay. . . . We need to recognize that it's not right and actually make a serious effort to do something about it."