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Presidential Contenders Will Be Center-Stage in Iraq Hearings

The war in Iraq is once again center-stage in the U.S. presidential election campaign. All three major contenders will be in Washington Tuesday for the congressional testimony of the top U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone reports from Washington.

On the eve of congressional hearings on Iraq, the presumed Republican presidential nominee, Senator John McCain, accused his Democratic rivals of making what he called reckless promises about a speedy withdrawal of U.S. troops. Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have both proposed a phased withdrawal from Iraq if elected. Obama, Clinton and McCain will all be in attendance Tuesday when two Senate committees hear from General Petraeus. McCain told a veteran's convention in Kansas City that the United States is no longer staring into what he called the "abyss of defeat" in Iraq, and that security improvements offer the genuine prospect of success.

John McCain: "Our goal is an Iraq that no longer needs American troops. And I believe we can achieve that goal, perhaps sooner than many imagine. But I do not believe that anyone should make promises as a candidate for president that they cannot keep if elected. To promise a withdrawal of our forces from Iraq, regardless of the calamitous consequences to the Iraqi people, our most vital interests and the future of the Middle East is the height of irresponsibility. It is a failure of leadership."

In response, Obama said McCain was wrong about the Iraq war from the beginning. Obama also said that an open-ended occupation of Iraq had badly strained the U.S. military and had made the United States less safe. Obama has been making similar arguments in recent days at campaign events where he has been explaining his troop withdrawal plan.

Barack Obama: "We are going to bring one to two brigades out per month. That is a very careful pace designed to keep our soldiers safe, but also to ensure that you do not have complete chaos in Iraq. At that pace, it will take about 16 months to get all our combat troops out."

Senator Clinton has also signaled a major shift in direction in Iraq if elected, including a promise to begin a phased withdrawal of U.S. forces within 60 days of her inauguration.

Hilary Clinton: "I believe with all my heart that the American military has done everything they could do. They have given the Iraqi people the greatest gift of freedom, and now it is up to the Iraqis to decide whether or not they can use it and be responsible going forward."

Clinton and Obama are engaged in a close fight for the Democratic presidential nomination that is now focused on the Pennsylvania primary on April 22nd. Obama holds a slight lead in the delegate count, but Clinton has vowed to fight on in the remaining 10 primaries.

But the Clinton campaign has announced that it will do so without longtime political strategist and pollster Mark Penn. Penn has given up most of his campaign duties after it was disclosed that he met with officials of the Colombian government to lobby for a free trade agreement that Clinton opposes. Penn attended the meeting in his position as head of a public relations firm promoting the free trade deal.

Penn apologized after the meeting was disclosed for what he called an error in judgment.