ALBUQUERQUE - Senator John McCain said yesterday that the United States should stay the course in Iraq even though he was "sick at heart" at mistakes made in the conflict.
As he sought to distance himself from President Bush and his handling of the unpopular Iraq war, now in its sixth year, McCain's two Democratic challengers repeated calls for a quick exit.
"As we all know, the American people have grown sick and tired of the war in Iraq," McCain told hundreds of veterans and families at a ceremony honoring US service members killed in battle. "I understand that, of course.
"I, too, have been made sick at heart by the many mistakes made by civilian and military commanders and the terrible price we have paid for them."
Meanwhile, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, and his challenger for the Democratic Party's nomination, Senator Hillary Clinton of New York, used Memorial Day speeches to reiterate pledges to end the war.
"My intention is to bring this war in Iraq to a close, and to start bringing our troops home in an orderly fashion," Obama told veterans in Las Cruces, N.M.
Wrapping up three days of campaigning in Puerto Rico, which holds its primary Sunday, Clinton participated in a Memorial Day salute to fallen American soldiers, including many from Puerto Rico. She also used the ceremony in San Juan to renew her call to allow residents of the island, which is a US territory, to vote in the US presidential election.
"It is long past time that we give the people of Puerto Rico - US citizens all - a full voice in a vote for commander in chief" who sends young men and women off to war, Clinton said, drawing sustained applause from the crowd, including a number of local political leaders and veterans.
Puerto Rico holds a presidential primary but its residents cannot cast ballots on Election Day. Later at a rally in Ponce, Clinton pledged to "bring our troops home."
The speed of drawing down the 155,000 US troops in Iraq is a central issue in the presidential election. Troop strength there is expected to fall to about 140,000 by July. But McCain, a former Navy pilot who spent 5 1/2 years in Vietnam as a prisoner of war, warned that it would be "a mistake of colossal historical proportions" for US troops to walk away before Iraq's new government gains its footing.
In a rebuke of Bush, McCain said US military commanders in Iraq needed time to carry out a "counterinsurgency strategy that we should have been following from the beginning." McCain has said he believed the Iraq war can be won by 2013, leaving a functioning democracy there and allowing most troops to come home. He did not explicitly mention Obama after attacking him last week for a lack of military service.
In his speech, Obama said his grandfather served with General George Patton in World War II but admitted, "I cannot know what it is to walk into battle like so many of you."
Obama also told veterans that Congress would override any Bush veto of legislation that would expand educational benefits for military veterans, a bill McCain opposed. "We should make sure that today's veterans get the same benefit my grandfather got when he came back from World War II."
McCain said he supported a different version of the bill.
Obama appeared with Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, a former presidential candidate who has become a vigorous supporter.
Obama maintains a lead in delegates to the party's nominating convention, but Clinton has said she willremain in the race until the last votes are cast and counted. The state-by-state nominating contests end June 3.