Obama and McCain exchange gibes over Al Qaeda in Iraq

The barbs between John McCain and Barack Obama, here at a rally yesterday in Columbus, Ohio, highlight that each man considers the other the likely opponent in the presidential race. The barbs between John McCain and Barack Obama, here at a rally yesterday in Columbus, Ohio, highlight that each man considers the other the likely opponent in the presidential race. (Rick Bowmer/associated press)
Email|Print| Text size + By Libby Quaid and Tom Raum
Associated Press / February 28, 2008

TYLER, Texas - Republican presidential hopeful John McCain yesterday mocked Barack Obama's view of Al Qaeda in Iraq, and the Democratic contender responded that GOP policies brought the terrorist group there.

The rapid-fire, long-distance exchange underscored that the two consider each other likely general election rivals, even though the Democratic contest remains unresolved.

McCain criticized Obama for saying in Tuesday night's Democratic debate that, after US troops were withdrawn, as president he would act "if Al Qaeda is forming a base in Iraq."

"I have some news. Al Qaeda is in Iraq. It's called 'Al Qaeda in Iraq,' " McCain told a crowd in Tyler, Texas, drawing laughter at Obama's expense. He said Obama's statement was "pretty remarkable."

Obama quickly answered back while campaigning in Ohio. "I do know that Al Qaeda is in Iraq and that's why I have said we should continue to strike Al Qaeda targets," he told a rally at Ohio State University in Columbus.

"But I have some news for John McCain," Obama added. "There was no such thing as Al Qaeda in Iraq until George Bush and John McCain decided to invade Iraq. . . . They took their eye off the people who were responsible for 9/11 and that would be Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, that is stronger now than at any time since 2001."

Obama said he intended to withdraw US forces from Iraq "so we actually start going after Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and in the hills of Pakistan, like we should have been doing in the first place."

While he praised McCain as a war hero and saluted his service to the country, Obama said the Arizona Republican was "tied to the politics of the past. We are about policies of the future."

Saying that McCain likes to tell audiences that he'd follow Osama bin Laden to the "gates of hell" to catch him, Obama taunted: "All he has done is to follow George Bush into a misguided war in Iraq."

McCain said he had not watched Tuesday night's Democratic presidential debate but was told of Obama's response when asked whether, as president, he would reserve the right to send US troops back into Iraq to quell an insurrection or civil war.

Obama did not say whether he would send troops but responded: "As commander in chief, I will always reserve the right to make sure that we are looking out for American interests. And if Al Qaeda is forming a base in Iraq, then we will have to act in a way that secures the American homeland and our interests abroad."

Yesterday, Obama expanded slightly that he "would always reserve the right to go in and strike Al Qaeda if they were in Iraq" without detailing what kind of strike that might be.

McCain said later in San Antonio: "So I guess that means that he would surrender and then go back."

Throughout the primary season, McCain has repeatedly attacked Obama and Obama's Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, for saying they would withdraw troops from Iraq.

"And my friends, if we left, [Al Qaeda] wouldn't be establishing a base," McCain said yesterday. "They'd be taking a country, and I'm not going to allow that to happen, my friends. I will not surrender. I will not surrender to Al Qaeda."

He said that withdrawing troops would be "waving the white flag."

In the debate, Clinton did not answer the question about reinvasion of Iraq on grounds it contained "lots of different hypothetical assessments."

For years, McCain has urged sending more troops into Iraq, even before President Bush adopted such a strategy about a year ago.

"I knew enough from talking to the men and women who are serving that this new strategy was what we needed, and I'm telling you, it is succeeding," McCain said. "So what needs to happen, we need to continue this strategy. It should be General Petraeus's recommendation, not that of a politician running for higher office, as to when and how we withdraw."

He was referring to General David Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq.

As he began a swing through Bush's home state, which holds a presidential primary election on Tuesday, McCain made sure to repeat a line he often uses: "I also think it might be nice for President Bush to get a little credit that there's not been another attack on the United States of America," he said to applause.

Later yesterday, McCain picked up support from a prominent religious conservative, televangelist John Hagee of San Antonio's Cornerstone Church. McCain has labored to win support among evangelical conservatives, an important GOP voting bloc with which he has clashed over the years.

"What Senator McCain needs to do, I feel, to bring evangelicals into his camp is to make very clear his strong defense of Israel and that he has a strong, 24-year record of being prolife," Hagee said at a press conference with McCain.

Both Obama and Clinton campaigned in Ohio yesterday. Obama also plans to spend at least three days campaigning in Texas.

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