WASHINGTON -- John McCain put the Iraq War squarely in the middle of the presidential election on Monday, saying that Democrats' calls for withdrawal may be popular politically but would lead to another war down the line.
"It may appear to be the easier course of action, but it is a much more reckless one, and it does them no credit even if it gives them an advantage in the next election," McCain told the Veterans of Foreign Wars at their national headquarters in Kansas City, Mo.
The presumptive Republican nominee defended the Iraq war a day before Senate hearings that will include questioning from Democratic opponents Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.
The hearings feature Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, who will give a status report on the war and recommendations for troop strength.
During his remarks McCain said Petraeus' strategy is reducing violence and giving the Iraq government a chance to get its act together.
Pulling out too soon would enable al-Qaeda terrorists to take over the country and use it as a base of operations, McCain said. It would also increase Iran's influence in Iraq and throughout the region, as Middle East countries "seek accommodation with Tehran as the expense of our interests."
"These likely consequences of America's failure in Iraq would, almost certainly, require us to return to Iraq or draw us into a wider and far costlier war," McCain said.
Sens. Clinton and Obama have both said the Iraqi government has failed to reconcile its Shi'a, Sunni, and Kurdish factions, and the government's performance does not justify continuing American support.
"It's a failure of leadership to support an open-ended occupation of Iraq that has failed to press Iraq's leaders to reconcile, badly overstretched our military, put a strain on our military families, set back our ability to lead the world, and made the American people less safe," Obama said Monday.
Other Democrats such as Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, have said that only a gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops can force the Iraqis to accept their responsibilities.
"John McCain's irresponsible political attacks are not a substitute for a workable plan for the future of Iraq, something McCain has consistently refused to outline," said Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Convention. "Responsible leadership means being honest about your plans for the future, not hiding behind empty rhetoric and shallow attacks."
Damien LaVera, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, said McCain "cherry picks" statistics to show improvements in Iraq, while ignoring Petraeus' own concerns about the lack of political progress in Iraq.
In his speech McCain said "from June 2007 through my most recent trip last month, sectarian and ethnic violence in Iraq has been reduced by 90%. Civilian deaths and deaths of coalition forces fell by 70%." The figures come from a report released by the Pentagon in March.
"McCain's political attacks aside, he still refuses to outline a plan for the future of Iraq," LaVera said, and he "refuses to say how he'll pay for the war and the Bush tax cuts without racking up trillions of dollars of new debt."
McCain said the war's critics are ignoring improvements in Iraq.
"We are no longer staring into the abyss of defeat, and we can now look ahead to the genuine prospect of success," McCain said.
McCain said reductions in violence have opened the way for political improvements, and he put the pressure on the Iraq government.
"Iraq's politicians need to know that we expect them to show the necessary leadership to rebuild the country," McCain said.
He said arguing about past mistakes in Iraq is looking backward and that potential presidents should look forward to events such as including security for provincial and national elections in Iraq over the next 18 months.
"Doing the right thing in the heat of a political campaign is not always the easiest thing," McCain said. "But when 4,000 Americans have given their lives so that America does not suffer the worst consequences of or failure in Iraq, it's a necessary thing."