In the latest fight between Barack Obama and John McCain over the war in Iraq, the Obama campaign Friday blasted the presumptive Republican presidential nominee for saying that the number of U.S. troops in Iraq had returned to levels prior to the "surge" of deployments in early 2007.
Campaigning at a town hall meeting in Wisconsin Thursday, McCain said of Iraq, "I can tell you that it is succeeding. I can look you in the eye and tell you it's succeeding. We have drawn down to pre-surge levels."
In fact, there are currently about 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, tens of thousands more than before President Bush's troop increase last year — a policy supported by McCain. Before the surge of troops, there were about 130,000-135,000 troops in Iraq.
The Obama campaign quickly pointed out McCain's error, dispatching Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle on a conference call with reporters to paint McCain's statement as a fundamental misunderstanding of military matters and the region.
"If you don't know the numbers of troops it's very difficult to make a judgment whether or not they're overextended and it is also very difficult to have an understanding as citizens about what levels of troops he's going to keep there," Kerry said, "because if he thinks 150,000 is pre-surge and that's where he's going to stay, that is a deeply overextended military, and it raises serious questions about his comprehension of this challenge."
Doyle added, "That's just not true and everybody knows that's not true. And I assume Sen. McCain just doesn't know the facts here."
During a news availability with reporters Friday in Milwaukee, McCain defended his earlier comment about troop levels in Iraq and did not admit that he had misspoken in his original statements.
"We have drawn down from the surge and we will complete that drawdown to the end, at the end of July. That's just a factual statement," McCain told reporters. "We have drawn three of the five brigades. We have drawn down the Marines. The rest of them will be home the end of July. That's just fact, those are the facts as I stated them."
Before the Bush administration increased the number of US troops to Iraq in an attempt to quell escalating violence, there were 15 combat brigades in Iraq. The surge added five more brigades. Today there are 17 brigades in Iraq but there are plans for some troops to depart Iraq in June and another brigade to come home in July, returning the level to 15.
McCain said his judgment about the surge, moreso than Obama's, has proven correct, and used the opening to once again hit Obama for visiting the region once compared to McCain's eight visits to Iraq since the war began.
Obama is expected to hit McCain in remarks Friday night at a campaign event in Great Falls, Montana.
"You're entitled to your own view, but not your own facts," Obama is expected to say, according to excepts of his planned speech sent to reporters. "Today, Senator McCain refused to correct his mistake. Just like George Bush, when he was presented with the truth, he just dug in and refused to admit his mistake. His campaign said it amounts to 'nitpicking.'