John Edwards has staked a claim on withdrawing from Iraq on the eve the Iowa caucus which clearly sets him apart from the two front-runners, Clinton and Obama. Edwards said in an interview on Sunday reported in the N.Y.Times today, that “if elected president he would withdraw the American troops who are training the Iraqi army and police as part of a broader plan to remove virtually all American forces within 10 months,” and he contended that “extending the American training effort in Iraq into the next presidency would require the deployment of tens of thousands of troops to provide logistical support and protect the advisers.”
“To me, that is a continuation of the occupation of Iraq,” he said in a 40-minute interview on Sunday aboard his campaign bus as it rumbled through western Iowa.
In one of his most detailed discussions to date about how he would handle Iraq as president, Mr. Edwards staked out a position that would lead to a more rapid and complete troop withdrawal than his principal rivals, Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, who have indicated they are open to keeping American trainers and counterterrorism units in Iraq.
Elizabeth Edwards, his wife and political partner, who listened in on the interview from a seat across the aisle, intervened at the end of the session to underscore that Mr. Edwards did not intend to stop all training and was prepared to train Iraqi forces outside of the country. Mr. Edwards continued the theme while acknowledging that the benefits of such training would be limited.
The N.Y. Times reports that Edwards “plan calls for immediately withdrawing 40,000 to 50,000 troops.”
Nearly all of the remaining American troops would be removed within 9 or 10 months. The only force that would remain would be a 3,500-to-5,000-strong contingent that would protect the American Embassy and possibly humanitarian workers.
Edwards “decided on his current plan for a rapid and near-total withdrawal of American troops because of the failure of Iraqi leaders to achieve a political accommodation over the past four years” and told the N.Y. Times that “eight to 10 brigades, which is likely to be the bulk of the American combat force by the time the next president takes office, would immediately be withdrawn.”
“I absolutely believe this to my soul: we are there propping up their bad behavior,” he said. “I mean really, how many American lives and how much American taxpayer money are we going to continue to expend waiting for these political leaders to do something? Because that is precisely what we are doing.”
Such a troop withdrawal, he said, might jolt Iraqi leaders into taking action to overcome their sectarian differences. During the 10 months or so while American troops were being withdrawn, Mr. Edwards added, he would also mount an intensive effort to encourage Iraq’s leaders to engage in political reconciliation and solicit the cooperation of Iran and Syria, who he argued might be more willing to help once they understood that American troops were on their way out.
This is a bold play for Edwards on the eve on the Iowa caucus, that could possibly sway some more anti-voters his way. And one has to wonder if teams Clinton and Obama will quickly step in with a similar goal for Iraq, before caucus day tomorrow.
The full interview with John Edwards is here.