Obama sets stage for Iraq trip

Barack Obama is setting the stage for his upcoming visit to Iraq with a high-profile explanation of his opposition to the war there and his pledge to complete a U.S. troop pullout within 16 months of becoming president.

In a major speech Tuesday, the Democrat will explain how missteps in Iraq have hurt efforts to strengthen U.S. security, aides said. He will also discuss his proposal to add two new brigades in nearby Afghanistan, as well as call for Pakistan to step up its own efforts dealing with terrorists.

In addition, the speech will discuss Obama’s belief in the need for diplomacy to address Iran’s nuclear program, while addressing other global challenges such as climate change and energy security, the aides said.

Later in the day, Obama will conduct a series of television interviews to bolster his remarks.

The flurry of activity comes a day after an Obama op-ed piece in the New York Times that called for the additional Afghanistan brigades and argued the U.S. faces a growing threat from a resurgent al-Qaida in Afghanistan.

His Republican rival, John McCain, also planned an address Thursday focused on Afghanistan. Nine U.S. soldiers were killed and 14 injured in a militant attack Sunday, the military’s highest death toll there in three years.

While he has accused Obama of favoring surrender in Iraq by outlining a troop withdrawal timetable, McCain told reporters on Monday, "I think we need to do whatever is necessary (in Afghanistan) and that could entail more troops."

Obama, a freshman senator from Illinois, has visited Iraq only once and has never been to Afghanistan. He plans to visit both during a trip that will also take him to Jordan and Israel in the Middle East, as well as European capitals in Germany, France and Great Britain.

He will be accompanied on the trip by Sens. Chuck Hagel and Jack Reed. Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, is a Vietnam War veteran, while Reed is a West Point graduate and former Army Ranger. Both have been mentioned as possible Obama vice presidential running mates.

McCain, an Arizona senator and former Vietnam prisoner of war, has lambasted Obama for his lack of travel in the region and for not meeting in Iraq with the top U.S. commander, Army Gen. David Petraeus.

Obama has been trumpeting the fact that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said last week his country wants some type of timetable for a withdrawal of American forces included in a deal needed to keep U.S. troops in Iraq after a U.N. mandate expires at year’s end.

President Bush opposes a withdrawal timetable, arguing it will embolden insurgents and prompt them to lay in wait for a U.S. departure.