War of words heats up over Iraq

Senators John McCain & Barack Obama (AFP)In a fiery preview of a possible 2008 election match-up, US Senators Barack Obama and John McCain traded political potshots over Iraq Friday, and Hillary Clinton also faced a Republican barrage.

A day after the US Congress sent President George W. Bush a new 100 billion dollar war budget, stripped of Democratic troop withdrawal dates, raw emotions over the war spiced up the already simmering 2008 White House race.

Republican candidate McCain complained that Senate votes by Democrats Clinton and Obama against the mammoth funding measure Thursday night were tantamount to "waving a white flag to Al-Qaeda."

Obama shot back in a written statement, ridiculing former Vietnam prisoner-of-war McCain for his recent stroll around a Baghdad neighborhood, and also lashed out at another Republican 2008 hopeful, Mitt Romney.

"Governor Romney and Senator McCain clearly believe the course we are on in Iraq is working, but I do not," Obama said.

"If there ever was a reflection of that, it's the fact that Senator McCain required a flack jacket, ten armored Humvees, two Apache attack helicopters, and 100 soldiers with rifles by his side to stroll through a market in Baghdad just a few weeks ago."

Just 47 minutes later, straight-talking McCain was back with another statement dripping with sarcasm.

While Obama's "two years in the US Senate certainly entitle him to vote against funding our troops," McCain said, his own military service and conversations with military leaders convinced him failure in Iraq would be catastrophic.

McCain's parting shot poked fun at a military faux-pas in the Illinois senator's statement.

"By the way, Senator Obama, it's a 'flak' jacket, not a 'flack' jacket."

The tongue-in-cheek exchange reflected the politically explosive impact of Thursday's vote and previewed the point-scoring likely to intensify as candidates fire off stinging soundbites to delight their core supporters.

Clinton and Obama were among only 14 senators who opposed the budget, in a nod to fiercely anti-war Democratic activists who will decide their fates.

McCain voted for it.

Romney, who has carved out a hawkish profile, said the Democratic pair had rendered themselves undependable in the eyes of the US military.

"Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama cast a vote that singularly defines their lack of leadership and serves as a glaring example of an unrealistic and inexperienced worldview on national security," Romney said.

One Democratic senator, Joseph Biden, a foreign policy veteran running a long-shot 2008 campaign, appeared torn between his conscience and political ambitions, and admitted his "yes" vote Thursday would take some explaining.

Another aspiring Democratic candidate, Senator Christopher Dodd, said Congress made a "grave mistake."

The vote on war funding came as a new poll showed a record number of people in the United States are pessimistic about the outcome in Iraq and now believe the war was a mistake.

Seventy-six percent of Americans think the war is going badly, up 10 percentage points in one month, according to the CBS News/New York Times opinion poll. And 61 percent said the United States should have stayed out of Iraq.

Obama said late Friday his vote was a signal to Bush that "enough is enough."

"We must negotiate a better plan that funds our troops, signals to the Iraqis that it is time for them to act and that begins to bring our brave servicemen and women home safely and responsibly."

Clinton said the emergency war budget "fails to compel the president to give our troops a new strategy in Iraq."

The Democratic front-runner is frequently asked by anti-war activists to explain her 2002 vote to authorize Bush to wage war in Iraq.

She says she takes responsibility for her vote, but blames Bush for giving "empty assurances" on finding a diplomatic solution.

Obama has indirectly skewered Clinton over her vote, repeatedly reminding audiences he was against the war all along.

The Illinois freshman had however one big advantage — he was not in the Senate when the vote was cast in a febrile political atmosphere just over a year after the September 11, 2001 attacks.