Obama holds firm on Iraq troop withdrawal


US:BARACK OBAMA has acknowledged that a surge in American troop numbers has improved security in Iraq but held firm to his plan to withdraw combat troops within 16 months, saying the United States should shift its focus to Afghanistan.

"There is security progress, but now we need a political solution," he told reporters in Jordan, during the first press conference of his week-long tour of the Middle East and Europe.

"I welcome the growing consensus in the United States and Iraq for a timeline. My view is we can safely deploy in 16 months so that our combat brigades are out of Iraq in 2010."

Mr Obama stopped in Amman for talks with Jordan's King Abdullah after visiting Baghdad and Anbar province, where he met US military personnel and received a briefing from the top US commander in Iraq, Gen David Petreaus.

Mr Obama acknowledged that the general opposed his proposal for setting a timetable to withdraw US troops from Iraq.

"There's no doubt that General Petraeus does not want a timetable. I think he wants maximum flexibility to be able to do what he believes needs to be done inside of Iraq," Mr Obama said.

"But keep in mind, for example, one of General Petraeus' responsibilities is not to think about how could we be using some of that $10 billion (€6.3 billion) a month to shore up a US economy that is really hurting right now?

"If I'm president of the United States, that is part of my responsibility." The Democratic presidential candidate left open the possibility of slowing his withdrawal plan if security conditions in Iraq deteriorated but he rejected claims that he is abandoning his pledge to end the war.

"What I will refuse to do is to get boxed in into what I consider two false choices," he said.

"Either I have a rigid timeline, come hell or high water, and I am blind to anything that happens in the intervening 16 months, or, alternatively, I am completely deferring to whatever the commanders on the ground say, which is what George Bush says he's doing, in which case I'm not doing my job as commander in chief.

"I'm essentially, simply rubber-stamping decisions that are made on the ground."

John McCain's campaign condemned Mr Obama's remarks as evidence that the Democrat was determined to ignore the advice of US military commanders as he crafted his Iraq strategy for maximum political advantage.

"Barack Obama has made clear that his goal remains unconditional withdrawal rather than securing the victory our troops have earned and the surge has made possible," Mr McCain's spokesman Tucker Bounds said.

Mr Obama left Amman for Jerusalem yesterday evening and he will meet the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah today.

He promised to make a Middle East peace deal a priority of his administration, declaring that the US must recognise Palestinian suffering as well as Israeli security concerns but adding that Washington would remain a staunch ally of Israel. "That policy is not going to change," he said.

"What I think can change is the ability of a United States president to be actively engaged with the peace process and to be concerned and recognise the legitimate difficulties that the Palestinian people are experiencing right now."

Mr Obama travels to Berlin tomorrow, where he will meet German chancellor Angela Merkel before holding an open-air rally at the Victory Column in the Tiergarten park. He will go to Paris on Friday for talks with French president Nicolas Sarkozy before travelling on to London.

Israeli visit: bulldozer injures 16

JERUSALEM:A Palestinian rammed a bulldozer into vehicles on a Jerusalem street yesterday before a visit by US presidential candidate Barack Obama, who condemned the attack and pledged to push for a peace deal.

The attacker wounded at least 16 people, one seriously, before being shot dead just down the road from the hotel where Mr Obama was due to stay. It was the second such incident in Jewish west Jerusalem in three weeks.

Mr Obama pledged to start working for a breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks from his first day in office but said it was unrealistic to expect a US president to "suddenly snap his fingers and bring about peace".

- (Reuters)