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Obama Meets With Iraqi Leaders

Iraq's government welcomed Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama on Monday with word that it apparently shares his hope that U.S. combat forces could leave by 2010.

The statement by Iraq's government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, followed talks between Obama and Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki - who has struggled for days to clarify Iraq's position on a possible timetable for a U.S. troop pullout.

Al-Dabbagh said the government did not endorse a fixed date, but hoped American combat units could be out of Iraq sometime in 2010. That timeframe falls within the 16-month withdrawal plan proposed by Obama, who arrived in Iraq earlier in the day as part of a congressional fact-finding team.

"We are hoping that in 2010 that combat troops will withdraw from Iraq," al-Dabbagh told reporters, noting that any withdrawal plan was subject to change if the level of violence kicks up again.

As he departed from talks with al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani in Baghdad's heavily protected Green Zone, Obama said, "We had a very constructive discussion." Obama also plans meetings with U.S. military commanders who will outline recent progress in the war he has opposed from the start.

This was the third stop on a foreign tour designed to gather information while burnishing the Democratic contender's foreign policy credentials. National security issues are the one issue area in which Obama trails Republican John McCain in the polls.

Obama has called for withdrawing U.S. troops at the rate of one or two brigades a month, ending combat operations within 16 months of becoming president. He favors leaving behind a residual force to protect U.S. personnel, train Iraqi security forces and counter attacks by al Qaeda.

The Illinois senator, challenged at every turn on the Iraq issue by Republicans, including McCain, arrived in the country amid the controversy over the comments by al-Maliki to a German magazine that were supportive of Obama's 16-month timetable.

The Iraqi leader's aides have said his remarks were misunderstood and that he was not taking sides in the U.S. election. Earlier this month, however, al-Maliki said negotiations between his government and the United States on an agreement spelling out a continued role for U.S. forces in Iraq must include some kind of timetable for withdrawing troops from his country.

Last week, the White House said President Bush and al-Maliki had agreed to set a "general time horizon" for bringing home more U.S. troops, a dramatic shift from what had been the administration's steadfast refusal to talk about any kind of deadline.

At the White House on Monday, Press Secretary Dana Perino said she had not heard the latest statement from al-Dabbagh. But responding to the continuing debate over withdrawal, Perino said the U.S. shares the goal of bringing U.S. troops home based on security success.

"The key issue is that they understand it will not be arbitrary; it will not be a date that you just pluck out of thin air; it will not be something that Americans say, `We're going to do we're going to leave at this date,' which is what some have suggested," she said.

Obama, along with Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., arrived in the country early Monday. Their first stop was Basra, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give details of the trip.

Basra is the center for about 4,000 British troops involved mostly in training Iraqi forces. An Iraqi-led offensive begun in March reclaimed control of most of the city from Shiite militias believed linked to Iran.

The meetings with Iraqi officials came after Obama began his first on-the-ground inspection of Iraq since launching his bid for the White House.

It marked the second major leg of a war zone tour that opened in Afghanistan. The contrasts in tone and message were distinct.

Obama sees the battle against the resurgent Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan as America's most crucial fight and supports expanding troop strength there to counter a sharp rise in attacks.

After spending time over the weekend meeting officials in Afghanistan, Obama told CBS News chief foreign correspondent Lara Logan in an exclusive interview that the time had come to shift America's military focus - and thousands of troops - from Iraq to Afghanistan. (

on Face The Nation.)

The trip will be Obama's second to Iraq, but CBS News Baghdad bureau chief Larry Doyle says the senator will arrive to a "dramatically changed landscape" to that which he saw in January 2006.

"When he visited two and a half years ago, Iraq was on the brink of collapse militarily and politically," reports Doyle. "Now, in Baghdad in the last year the levels of violence have decreased in almost all categories by more than 90 percent, and there is a nascent mood of optimism running through the neighborhoods."

But Doyle tempers the positive assessment with a reminder of Iraq's continuing woes: "Those same areas are only receiving about eight hours of electricity a day, sewage problems persist, and unemployment can run as high as 60 percent."

Obama's first tour was treated as a footnote, while the country was caught in a growing Sunni insurgency and was moving toward a flood of sectarian violence. But the bloodshed has declined significantly since Mr. Bush sent thousands more troops last year to help quell the rising violence.

Doyle reports Obama and his fellow senators will also encounter Iraqi leaders who are increasingly "unafraid to push back against American influence." Some U.S. Embassy staff who regularly deal with the national government have told CBS News privately that the Iraqis have even become "belligerent."

"The Iraqi government seems to be finding its stride a bit," says Doyle.

One leading parliamentarian was critical of the flying visits to his country often made by American lawmakers. Mahmoud Othman, who has seen hundreds of senators and congressmen come and go, told Doyle recently the visitors see all the wrong people.

"They come only to the Green Zone, the American Embassy, they see a few generals. I don't think this is a useful trip," said Othman, a prominent member of the Iraqi parliament's Kurdish bloc. "They should go to Basra, Mosul; they are safe now. They should talk to Iraqi lawyers, engineers, doctors, all sorts of people. Twenty hours on a plane, twenty hours going back - 10, 12 hours here - I don't think it's worth it."

(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
McCain, seen at left, has been critical of Obama's position on Iraq, saying the decision to pull out should be determined by progress, not a timetable.

Speaking Monday morning to CBS Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith, McCain said he hoped Obama would learn the error of his ways during his visit to Iraq. (

)

"Sen. Obama was wrong. He railed against it (the war), he voted against the surge," McCain said. "It is my hope that he will see for himself that he made a gross misjudgment and he will correct that."

"If Sen. Obama would have had his way, they (U.S. troops) would have been out last March, before the surge, and we would have failed," the Republican candidate told Smith.

McCain supports the war, and has been critical of some aspects of its handling. But he was a vocal supporter of the decision to send in more troops.

McCain's foreign policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann, said Obama "is stubbornly adhering to an unconditional withdrawal that places politics above the advice of our military commanders, the success of our troops, and the security of the American people."

U.S. commanders have begun withdrawing some of those additional troops and Obama argues they should be sent to Afghanistan, which he says is the "central front" in the fight against terrorism, to reinforce efforts there against a resurgent Taliban and to control spiraling violence.

"There's starting to be a growing consensus that it's time for us to withdraw some of our combat troops out of Iraq, deploy them here in Afghanistan, and I think we have to seize that opportunity. Now is the time for us to do it," Obama told Logan after a two-hour meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. (Read the transcript of the exclusive interview.)

"I think it's important for us to begin planning for those brigades now. If we wait until the next administration, it could be a year before we get those additional troops on the ground here in Afghanistan, and I think that would be a mistake," Obama said in the interview. "I think the situation is getting urgent enough that we have got to start doing something now."

Obama has made Afghanistan a centerpiece of his proposed strategy for dealing with terrorism threats to the United States. He has said the war in Afghanistan, where Taliban- and al Qaeda-linked militants are resurgent, deserves more troops and attention than the conflict in Iraq.

Earlier Sunday, Obama met and praised U.S. troops as he ate breakfast at a heavily fortified base in Kabul.

"To see young people like this who are doing such excellent work, with so much dedication ... it makes you feel good about the country," Obama said in video footage filmed by the military and obtained by The Associated Press.

McCain also supports sending troop reinforcements to Afghanistan.