'Ending' War Means Different Things to Candidates

All the Democratic presidential candidates say they want to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq. But they differ on how fast this should be done and whether any forces should remain to train Iraqis and go after al-Qaida.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

All seven of the major Democratic presidential candidates say they want to end the war in Iraq. Five of the seven use those very words on their Web sites, including frontrunners Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

But as NPR's Tom Bowman reports, ending the war has a different meaning for each candidate.

HILLARY CLINTON: It is time to begin ending this war.

BARACK OBAMA: Now is the time to end the war in Iraq.

TOM BOWMAN: Both Clinton and Obama talk about bringing home the troops when they reach the Oval Office. Clinton says she will do so, quote, "as quickly as we can." Obama wants to withdraw one or two American combat brigades per month until all are home. He says that'll take roughly a year. But listen carefully. Candidate Clinton isn't ready to bring all the troops home. She talks about something called specialized units, a term she doesn't define and one that is rarely heard at the Pentagon.

CLINTON: I will order specialized units to engage in narrow and targeted operations against al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations in the region. They will also provide security for U.S. troops and personnel and train and equip Iraqi security services to help keep order only to the extent we believe such training is actually working.

BOWMAN: And she doesn't say how many of these specialized units will be needed or for how long. That kind of talk has led to this charge from her Democratic rival, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson.

BILL RICHARDSON: It seems that Senator Clinton, with all due respect on her plan on Iraq, doesn't end the war.

BOWMAN: Richardson, like his fellow presidential hopeful Congressman Dennis Kucinich, says he wants all U.S. troops out of Iraq quickly and safely. Richardson says, within six months. But defense experts say it would take one or two years to get all 160,000 American troops and their equipment out of Iraq in an orderly and safe way.

For his part, Obama says he will bring most troops out of Iraq within 16 months.

OBAMA: The only troops I will keep in Iraq for a limited time will be to protect our diplomats and carry out targeted strikes on al-Qaida, not sustained combat, not patrolling the streets of Baghdad.

BOWMAN: How big is that residual force, how long will it stay? Obama doesn't say. Now, this is what former Senator John Edwards has to say about Iraq.

JOHN EDWARDS: For over a year, I've called for an immediate withdrawal of 40 to 50,000 troops to jumpstart the comprehensive political solution that will end the violence in Iraq and will allow a complete withdrawal of all combat troops within nine to 10 months.

BOWMAN: Well, not complete. Edwards wants to leave behind as many as 5,000 American troops to protect U.S. diplomats and maybe humanitarian workers. They are the only Democrats who want to end the war, bring home the troops and, at the same time, keep some U.S. soldiers and Marines in Iraq. Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, about 20,000 American troops.

And then there's Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut.

CHRIS DODD: This has to come to an end, in my view.

BOWMAN: Dodd sounds definitive, but he also wants some U.S. troops to stay. He just hasn't said how many. Meanwhile, the Pentagon plans to reduce the number of American troops in Iraq to about 140,000 by next summer. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says he hopes that level can drop to 100,000 by the end of next year. By that time, Americans will have chosen a new president to figure out how many troops to keep in Iraq.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, the Pentagon.

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