Top Dems blast Gates for hinting at withdrawal halt

The two Democratic presidential contenders Monday criticized the Bush administration’s Iraq plans after Defense Secretary Robert Gates hinted at a pause in troop withdrawals in the summer.

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“I strongly disagree with the administration’s plans to ‘pause’ the long-overdue removal of our combat brigades from Iraq,” said Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.). “While the administration puts our drawdown on permanent pause, bin Laden is on the loose, Afghanistan is sliding toward chaos and we’re spending billions of dollars a week in Baghdad instead of helping Americans who are struggling here at home.”

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) joined the criticism, saying that she was “disheartened to hear Secretary Gates ... suggest that the withdrawal of our troops from Iraq would not continue at the pace that had been expected.”

Gates made the remarks to reporters while visiting Iraq.

Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the likely Republican nominee, is a strong supporter of the troop surge and Iraq is expected to be a main issue in the general election. With McCain aligned with Bush on the surge, it is likely that the Democratic nominee will seek to tie him to a plan that they believe has failed.

“It is clear that in the absence of a military solution, which I think this announcement today obviously confirms, the Iraqi government will not take the steps that were expected and even demanded,” Clinton said. “The whole idea behind this so-called surge was to give the Iraqi government the space and time to make the tough decisions that only they can make for themselves and the future of their country.”

Obama called for a “rapid and responsible removal of our combat brigades” that should replace the “false promises and a faulty strategy” that the Bush administration has offered.

In return, Republicans shot back at both candidates.

“Senator Clinton has no credibility on the issue of Iraq,” said Republican National Committee spokesman Alex Conant. “Her position changes depending on her status in the polls – not our troops’ status in Iraq.”

Conant also slammed Obama, saying that his second-guessing of military commanders may endear him to liberal groups, but “it won’t help him win the election – let alone the war.

“Obama may not have much foreign policy experience, but that does not excuse his knee-jerk attacks on Secretary Gates,” Conant added.

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