Sunday, July 20, 2008

Iraqi PM backs Obama troop exit plan: report

Iraq's President Nuri al-Maliki speaks during a visit to Kerbala, 80 km southwest of Baghdad, June 20, 2008. REUTERS/Mushtaq Muhammed
Reuters Photo: Iraq's President Nuri al-Maliki speaks during a visit to Kerbala, 80 km southwest of Baghdad,...

BERLIN (Reuters) - Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told a German magazine he supported prospective U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's proposal that U.S. troops should leave Iraq within 16 months.

In an interview with Der Spiegel released on Saturday, Maliki said he wanted U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraq as soon as possible.

"U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes."

It is the first time he has backed the withdrawal timetable put forward by Obama, who is visiting Afghanistan and us set to go to Iraq as part of a tour of Europe and the Middle East.

Obama has called for a shift away from a "single-minded" focus on Iraq and wants to pull out troops within 16 months, instead adding U.S. soldiers to Afghanistan.

Asked if he supported Obama's ideas more than those of John McCain, Republican presidential hopeful, Maliki said he did not want to recommend who people should vote for.

"Whoever is thinking about the shorter term is closer to reality. Artificially extending the stay of U.S. troops would cause problems."

Maliki, who is due to visit Germany this week, has suggested a timetable should be set for a U.S. withdrawal but U.S. officials have been more cautious, despite an improving security situation.

The White House said on Friday President George W. Bush and Maliki had agreed that a security deal under negotiation should set a "time horizon" for meeting "aspirational goals" for reducing U.S. forces in Iraq.

"The Americans have found it difficult to agree on a concrete timetable for the exit because it seems like an admission of defeat to them. But it isn't," Maliki told Der Spiegel.

Some five years after the U.S.-led invasion, there are still some 146,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq.

(Reporting by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Jon Boyle)

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White House Accidentally E-Mails to Reporters Story That Maliki Supports Obama Iraq Withdrawal Plan

Jake Tapper is ABC News' Senior National Correspondent based in the network's Washington bureau. He writes about politics and popular culture and covers a range of national stories.

The White House this afternoon accidentally sent to its extensive distribution list a Reuters story headlined "Iraqi PM backs Obama troop exit plan - magazine."

The story relayed how Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told the German magazine Der Spiegel that "he supported prospective U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's proposal that U.S. troops should leave Iraq within 16 months … ‘U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes,'" the prime minister said.

The White House employee had intended to send the article to an internal distribution list, ABC News' Martha Raddatz reports, but hit the wrong button.

The misfire comes at an odd time for Bush foreign policy, at a time when Obama's campaign alleges the president is moving closer toward Obama's recommendations about international relations -- sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, discussing a "general time horizon" for U.S. troop withdrawal and launching talks with Iran.

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Phil Gramm Resigns From McCain Campaign

In this Feb. 3, 2008 file photo, former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm looks on at right as Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. addresses a rally at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. (AP Photo/Douglas Healey, File

NEW YORK — Phil Gramm, a top adviser to presidential candidate John McCain, is resigning from the role as campaign co-chairman after his comments that the United States had become a "nation of whiners" who constantly complain about the state of the economy.

The former U.S. senator from Texas and past presidential candidate made the remarks earlier this month. McCain immediately distanced himself from the comments, but they have been criticized constantly as McCain tries to show he can help steer the country past its current financial troubles.

Gramm had also suggested that the country was facing a "mental recession" instead of real economic problems. Gramm said in a statement late Friday that he is stepping down as a co-chair of the campaign to "end this distraction."

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Democrats voted for FISA out of fear

It was not the fear of terrorist attacks by Islamic fundamentalists that motivated Barack Obama, many Democratic senators and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to grant President George W. Bush expanded powers to wiretap Americans in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Instead, it was the fear of Republican campaign operatives who paralyze Democratic lawmakers with these words: "My Democratic opponent is weak on terrorism."

The advice that Washington wise men give to Democratic incumbents is that, even if you think it is wrong, vote for the president's anti-terrorism bills or the Republicans will do to you what they did to Max Cleland. A decorated Vietnam War hero, Cleland lost his seat in the U.S. Senate in 2002 when Georgia lawyer Saxby Chambliss ran ads declaring Cleland was soft on fighting terrorism.

Although it was six years ago, the shadow of Chambliss ads still looms large over the 21 Democratic senators, including the party's presumptive presidential nominee, who voted last week to loosen court checks on government wiretaps.

It is the same Chambliss ghost that coaxed 12 Democratic senators and 32 House Democrats to help pass the Military Commissions Act in October 2006. That law gave the president the authority to imprison people indefinitely and torture them based only on suspicions rather than on evidence. The legislation violates the Constitution and the basis of our laws going back to the Magna Carta. Never mind, they said, it is six weeks before the elections, and we can fix it later.

The presumption by political consultants is that voters are incapable of dealing with choices, especially with emotional issues such as terrorism.

Our focus groups and surveys over the last several years show the opposite. In fact, people can become emotional about the loss of their constitutional rights and what they perceive as government abuse if the point is made clearly.

One example: A 2007 national survey my firm conducted for the American Civil Liberties Union reported that 51 percent of the public believed Congress was right to give the president "the authority to listen to telephone calls of U.S. residents the government believes may have ties to terrorists without getting a court warrant." Forty-six percent thought Congress was wrong to give the president this authority.

But the numbers reverse when voters are asked to choose between two points of view: 57 percent said "government can just as effectively combat terrorism by getting court warrants before eavesdropping on phone calls of U.S. residents," while only 40 percent said that "in order to fight terrorism the government needs to be allowed to listen secretly to telephone calls of U.S. residents the government believes may have ties to terrorists."

Even with the president's approval rating at an all time low, Democrats are unwilling to offer voters a clear choice on issues as fundamental as our constitutional rights.

I can only explain this as a phenomenon of the "incumbency class" in Washington. These are the politicians and consultants who share an interest in avoiding distinctions on issues in order to get re-elected and rehired with the least amount of effort.

This may work for Democrats in the Congress, but Barack Obama should be careful not to play this game of blur the lines. People do not want their president to be afraid, they want their president to lead.

John Russonello is a partner in an opinion research firm, Belden Russonello & Stewart, in Washington.

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Acceptance of Gay People in Military Grows Dramatically

By Kyle Dropp and Jon Cohen

Public attitudes about gays in the military have shifted dramatically since President Bill Clinton unveiled what became his administration's "don't ask, don't tell" policy 15 years ago today.

Seventy-five percent of Americans in a new Washington Post-ABC News poll said gay people who are open about their sexual orientation should be allowed to serve in the U.S. military, up from 62 percent in early 2001 and 44 percent in 1993.

Majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents alike now believe it is acceptable for openly gay people to serve in the U.S. armed forces. Shortly after he took office in 1993, Clinton faced strong resistance to his campaign pledge to lift the military's ban on allowing gay people to enlist. At that time, 67 percent of Republicans and 75 percent of conservatives opposed the idea. A majority of independents, 56 percent, and 45 percent of Democrats also opposed changing the policy.

Today, Americans have become more supportive of allowing openly gay men and women to serve in the armed forces. Support from Republicans has doubled over the past 15 years, from 32 to 64 percent. More than eight in 10 Democrats and more than three-quarters of independents now support the idea, as did nearly two-thirds of self-described conservatives.

Changing attitudes on the issue parallel broader swings in public views about homosexuality. In their recent review of 20 years of polling data, the Pew Research Center reported "a major shift away from highly negative attitudes toward gays and support for punitive actions against gays." In the 2007 Pew data, for example, 28 percent said local school boards should have the right to fire teachers known to be gay; that was down sharply from the 51 percent who said so in 1987.

In the new Post-ABC poll, military veterans are less apt than others to say gay people should be allowed in the military. While 71 percent of veterans said gay people who do not declare themselves as such should be allowed to serve, that number drops sharply, to 50 percent, for those who are open about their sexuality. Non-veterans, by contrast, are as likely to support those who "tell" as those who do not.

Fifty-seven percent of white evangelical Protestants now support allowing openly gay service members in the military, compared with 82 percent of white Catholics and 80 percent of those with no declared religious affiliation. Three-quarters of both married and single people support the idea, both significantly higher than in 1993.

Across all three periodic Post-ABC surveys on the issue, women have been more apt than men to support gays in the military. Today, more than eight in 10 women support allowing openly gay soldiers, compared with nearly two-thirds of men. Fifteen years ago, half of women supported this stance; nearly two-thirds of men opposed it.

Furthermore, large majorities across age and education categories now support allowing openly gay individuals to serve in the military.

The Post-ABC poll was conducted by telephone July 10 to 13, among a random national sample of 1,119 adults. The results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points. Error margins are larger for subgroups.

Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

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Iraq President Maliki embraces Obama withdrawal plan

Associated Press
Barack Obama is seen being photographed during a meeting with U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan.
The Democratic candidate meets military planners and troops in Afghanistan on a tour aimed at raising his foreign policy profile.
By Peter Nicholas and M. Karim Faiez, Special to The Times
July 20, 2008
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN -- Barack Obama met with U.S. troops and received a military briefing on conditions in Afghanistan on Saturday during the opening leg of an overseas trip designed to showcase his appeal in foreign capitals and reassure American voters that he would make a reliable commander in chief.

Obama's trip is scheduled to include a visit to Iraq, and his foreign policy judgment got an unexpected boost from that country's leader, Nouri Maliki, who praised the Democratic presidential candidate's plan for withdrawing U.S. troops over a 16-month period.

In an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, Maliki embraced Obama's plan, saying: "That, we think, would be the right time frame for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes."

Maliki said he was not making an endorsement in the presidential race.

The presumed Republican nominee, John McCain, has said that conditions in Iraq could worsen if troops were removed at the pace his rival has advised.

Obama's high-profile trip caps a week on the campaign trail during which he focused on national security and U.S. commitments abroad -- areas that are considered special strengths of McCain.

Seizing on Maliki's favorable comments, the Obama campaign put out a statement from his senior foreign policy advisor, Susan Rice: "Sen. Obama welcomes Prime Minister Maliki's support for a 16-month timeline for the redeployment of U.S. combat brigades. This presents an important opportunity to transition to Iraqi responsibility, while restoring our military and increasing our commitment to finish the fight in Afghanistan."

In a speech last week, Obama said that troops should be drawn down in Iraq and two additional combat brigades deployed in Afghanistan, a war he said the U.S. couldn't afford to lose.

His visit to Afghanistan comes at a time of sharply deteriorating security across the country. Suicide bombings are an everyday occurrence, and the number of foreign troops killed last month was the highest since the start of the war.

The presumptive Democratic nominee and senator from Illinois is part of an official congressional delegation that includes Sens. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.). The lawmakers made a brief visit to Jalalabad airfield in eastern Afghanistan, greeting American troops from their respective home states.

At Bagram Air Base outside Kabul, Obama and the others met with senior military officials and got a briefing from the commander of American forces in eastern Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey J. Schloesser. The decision to have the delegation meet with Schloesser probably reflected growing U.S. concern over infiltration of fighters from tribal lands on the Pakistani side of the frontier, which borders Afghanistan's eastern provinces.

Although Afghanistan's south is the traditional heartland of the insurgency, the eastern front, where U.S. forces are concentrated, has heated up dramatically in recent weeks. American troops suffered their worst single-incident loss in three years last Sunday, when about 200 insurgents staged a well-organized assault on a remote base near the Pakistani border manned by U.S. and Afghan troops; nine Americans were killed and 15 wounded.

On Saturday, a NATO soldier was killed in an explosion in southern Afghanistan, in the Panjwayi district of Kandahar province. The soldier's nationality was not released, but nearly all Western troops in that area are Canadian.

On the eve of his trip, Obama told reporters he wanted to make a firsthand evaluation of the Afghan and Iraqi war zones.

"Well, I'm looking forward to seeing what the situation on the ground is," he said Thursday. "I want to, obviously, talk to the commanders and get a sense -- both in Afghanistan and in Baghdad -- of, you know, what . . . their biggest concerns are. And I want to thank our troops for the heroic work that they've been doing."

In the Afghan capital, where constant power disruptions limit people's access to radio and television news reports, many residents were not aware of Obama's arrival. He is to meet with President Hamid Karzai today.

Obama caused a stir this month with remarks about the struggles of the Karzai government.

"I think the Karzai government has not gotten out of the bunker and helped to organize Afghanistan and [the] government, the judiciary, police forces, in ways that would give people confidence," Obama told CNN.

Yet there is considerable enthusiasm here at the prospect of a change in the American administration. Many Afghans, while grateful for the U.S.-led invasion more than six years ago that drove the Taliban from power, are disappointed that the country still faces violence and poverty.

Obama "has good ideas about Afghanistan, and I hope he becomes the U.S. president," said university student Hafeez Mohammad Sultani, 23. "He is young and full of energy."
Others, however, were more skeptical.

"Bush couldn't provide security in Afghanistan, so that will be difficult for Obama too," said telecommunications worker Shams ul-Rahman, 38. "This is a very big challenge for America -- maybe there will be some changes in the way Obama is thinking about Afghanistan."

Obama's companions on the trip are considered possible administration appointees should he win the presidency. Reed is a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Hagel is a Vietnam veteran who, like Obama, has opposed the Iraq war.

Recent polls show that most Americans see McCain, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, as the more seasoned of the two candidates when it comes to foreign policy.

To close the gap, Obama has been trying to shore up his credentials. In speeches and opinion pieces, Obama has argued that invading Iraq was a mistake, that Iraqi officials also favor a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal, and that Afghanistan is the real front in the war on terrorism.

In that respect, Maliki's remarks gave Obama a boost and left McCain in an awkward spot.

The Arizona senator has said that U.S. troops should leave Iraq when the Maliki government and U.S. commanders on the ground deem the country secure. But McCain has dismissed Obama's 16-month timeline as politically motivated and said it was an invitation for more chaos in Iraq.

McCain's senior foreign policy advisor, Randy Scheunemann, said in a statement Saturday: "The difference between John McCain and Barack Obama is that Barack Obama advocates an unconditional withdrawal that ignores the facts on the ground and the advice of our top military commanders. John McCain believes withdrawal must be based on conditions on the ground.

"Prime Minister Maliki has repeatedly affirmed the same view and did so again today. Timing is not as important as whether we leave with victory and honor, which is of no apparent concern to Barack Obama.

"The fundamental truth remains that Sen. McCain was right about the [U.S. troop] surge and Sen. Obama was wrong. We would not be in the position to discuss a responsible withdrawal today if Sen. Obama's views had prevailed."

The Republican candidate also has ridiculed Obama for making pronouncements on Iraq and Afghanistan in advance of his visit.

In a radio address Saturday, McCain said: "My opponent . . . announced his strategy for Afghanistan and Iraq before departing on a fact-finding mission that will include visits to both those countries. Apparently, he's confident enough that he won't find any facts that might change his opinion or alter his strategy. Remarkable."

Obama is scheduled to visit the Middle East and Europe in what will probably become a media spectacle, with television news anchors covering each stop as though Obama were a head of state.

Images of adoring crowds greeting Obama in Germany and elsewhere feed into a campaign strategy to demonstrate that as president he would improve the United States' beleaguered reputation in Europe.

Before landing in Afghanistan, the delegation stopped in Kuwait.

Obama relaxed there with U.S. troops, taking to the basketball court for a game of H-O-R-S-E.

Times staff writer Nicholas reported from Washington and special correspondent Faiez from Kabul. Times staff writers Laura King in Istanbul, Turkey, Michael Muskal in Los Angeles and Nicholas Riccardi in New York contributed to this report.

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'Two oil men' to blame for high gas prices, Pelosi says

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi Thursday blamed the "two oil men in the White House," President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, and their Republican allies in Congress for gas prices exceeding $4 a gallon.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she does not plan to permit a vote to lift a ban on offshore oil drilling.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she does not plan to permit a vote to lift a ban on offshore oil drilling.

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Pelosi, a California Democrat, said multiple initiatives intended to lower high energy costs have passed the Democratically controlled House only to "run into a brick wall" in the Senate because they did not receive the 60 votes needed to overcome Republican filibusters.

"The price of oil is... is attributed to two oil men in the White House and their protectors in the United States Senate," Pelosi said in an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer.

Pelosi said she would continue to oppose two policy changes that President Bush and congressional Republicans have been advocating: lifting the ban on offshore drilling and opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil exploration.

Pelosi said she had no plans to allow votes to lift a ban on offshore drilling despite widespread support for the move. A recent CNN poll conducted by the Opinion Research Corp. found that 72 percent of those polled supported more offshore drilling. About a quarter -- 27 percent -- backed Pelosi's position. The poll, conducted June 26-29, has a margin of error of plus-or-minus 3 percentage points.

Pelosi said there are plenty of opportunities that oil companies should explore before environmentally sensitive areas such as ANWR are open to drilling, pointing to the 33 million acres that have already been approved for offshore drilling and the 68 million acres of federal land in the lower 48 states that is open to exploration.

"The impression that the White House has given you is that if you could drill in these protected areas, the price of gasoline will come down," Pelosi said. "Even the president in his press conference the other day acknowledged that that was not the case."

Pelosi's renewed opposition to more drilling comes as two bipartisan groups -- one in the House, the other in the Senate -- are trying to rekindle stalled energy legislation by forging a compromise to expand domestic oil and gas drilling.

The compromise would include new domestic drilling to satisfy Republicans and promote conservation and alternative energy sources to satisfy Democrats, lawmakers said.

Despite Pelosi and the Democratic leadership opposing efforts to repeal a 1981 law barring most offshore drilling, the Senate group said its plan probably would allow offshore drilling in new areas of the outer continental shelf.

Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Nebraska, is bucking his party's leadership by supporting new drilling. He said he and the other senators advocating the deal are "people who are all seriously concerned about the issue who want to find solutions that are most likely to involve compromise."

Another group member, Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, said, "Somebody around here's got to do it. We think the Senate can vote in the majority for energy proposals that will reduce our dependence on foreign oil and reduce the pressure on gas prices."

The Senate group met behind closed doors Wednesday at the Capitol, seeking to forge legislation that could be introduced after the August recess. Talks were to continue later in the week, according to one senator who attended the meeting.

In the House, the bipartisan "energy working group" -- formed by Reps. John Peterson, R-Pennsylvania, and Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii -- includes 23 members, roughly split between the two parties.

Peterson said energy legislation should be the priority for Congress and said he hopes the group can yield a comprehensive plan next week.

"Leaders are going to have a hard time refusing to address this issue. This is the issue of the year. This is the issue of the decade," Peterson said.

Another member of the group, Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, said that "everything is on the table" except drilling in Alaska's ANWR, which he described as a "lightning rod."

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McCain: Oil Rigs ‘Very Successfully’ Survived the Impact of Hurricanes»

Yesterday, Nancy Pfotenhauer, Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) senior policy adviser, claimed that she had been “misinformed” when she falsely stated that Hurricanes Katrina and Rita “did not spill a drop of oil.” Today, McCain made another “misinformed” argument, claiming that oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico “have survived, very successfully, the impacts of hurricanes”:

Q: I’ve been listening to your comments around renewable resources – solar, tide, and wind – you’ve talked a lot about that, but you keep peppering your comments with offshore drilling. But I’m not sure what you think the impact on our environment is based on that.

A: Keep the microphone. I’m aware that off the coast of Louisiana and Texas there are oil rigs, as we well know, and those rigs have survived, very successfully, the impacts of hurricanes – hurricane Katrina as far as Louisiana is concerned.

McCain is wrong. According to press reports, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita “tore through the Gulf of Mexico’s offshore oil and gas fields, toppling production platforms, setting rigs adrift and rupturing pipelines.” The U.S. Minerals Management Service reported that the hurricanes totally destroyed 113 offshore oil platforms.

The hurricanes cost Transocean, the largest offshore driller, “about $135 million in repairs, downtime and equipment upgrades” alone, and damage to offshore producers accounted for 77 percent of the oil industry’s storm costs. One offshore rig, the Ocean Warwick, drifted 66 nautical miles before running aground.

Here are some photos of the success that McCain is touting:

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