Obama: ‘I can be trusted to end the Iraq war’

Barack Obama suggested Wednesday that Hillary Clinton could not be trusted to end the Iraq war because she only started opposing it when she began her bid for president.

In a speech not far from North Carolina’s Fort Bragg military base, the Democratic presidential hopeful told military families and local officials that the war has emboldened al-Qaida, the Taliban, Iran and North Korea.

“Ask yourself,” Obama told the crowd, “Who do you trust to end a war: someone who opposed the war from the beginning, or someone who started opposing it when they started preparing a run for president?”

Obama used the five-year anniversary of the Iraq invasion to again cast himself as the only true anti-war candidate, one who openly opposed the invasion as a state lawmaker. He renewed criticism of Clinton for voting to authorize the use of force against Iraq.

Clinton campaign spokesman Phil Singer responded: “The reality is that Senator Obama took practically no action to end the war until he started his White House run while Senator Clinton has been a consistent critic of Iraq for many years.”

Obama also teased likely Republican nominee John McCain for a foreign policy gaffe Tuesday in which McCain, touring the Middle East, said several times that Iran was training al-Qaida in Iraq. Iran is a predominantly Shiite Muslim country and has been at pains to close its borders to al-Qaida fighters of the rival Sunni sect. After another senator on the trip, Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., whispered into his ear, McCain finally corrected himself to say Iran was training Shiite militants.

“Maybe that is why he voted to go to war with a country that had no al-Qaida ties,” Obama said to laughter and applause. “Maybe that is why he completely fails to understand that the war in Iraq has done more to embolden America’s enemies than any strategic choice that we have made in decades.”

In the days before she won primaries in Texas and Ohio, Clinton argued that she was better prepared to be commander in chief and broadcast a television ad that asked who could handle a middle-of-the-night crisis. Obama countered that Clinton had bungled her crisis moment when she voted to authorize military force to oust Saddam Hussein.

Obama alluded to that ad in his speech.

“What we need in our next commander in chief is not a stubborn refusal to acknowledge reality or empty rhetoric about 3 a.m. phone calls,” he said. “What we need is a pragmatic strategy that focuses on fighting our real enemies, rebuilding alliances and renewing our engagement with the world’s people.”

He said Clinton and likely Republican McCain talk tough on national security yet they make decisions that leave the country less secure.

“This is why the judgment that matters most on Iraq — and on any decision to deploy military force — is the judgment made first,” Obama said.

Special forces from Fort Bragg were among the first soldiers in Iraq during the 2003 invasion and its paratroopers led last year’s troop increase. President Bush visited the base to deliver his 2005 Independence Day speech, where he warned that setting a timetable to withdraw from Iraq would only embolden terrorists.

McCain has issued similar remarks and Obama squarely rejected them.

“These are the mistaken and misleading arguments we hear from those who have failed to demonstrate how the war in Iraq has made us safer,” Obama said.

Mark Salter, a senior adviser to McCain, responded: “John McCain wants American forces to come home when our clear and serious interests at stake in Iraq, which nearly 4,000 Americans have given their lives to secure, are truly safe, when al-Qaida is defeated; Iran’s influence is contained, and the potential for a truly cataclysmic civil war in Iraq is remote. That, I think, is what is called ‘making us safer.'”

Obama also defended his contention that the United States should act on intelligence about top terrorist targets in Pakistan even if President Pervez Musharraf refuses — a statement last year that drew criticism from Republicans.

“We have a security gap when candidates say they will follow Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell, but refuse to follow him where he actually goes,” Obama said, referring to McCain’s vow to chase down bin Laden.

North Carolina holds its primary May 6. Obama was scheduled to travel to Charlotte on Wednesday evening for a town hall meeting and a fundraiser.