Iraqi Foreign Minister Courts McCain, Obama

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari visits the U.S. to talk with presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama. Zebari says Iraq seeks a one-to-two year agreement on a U.S. troop presence there.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

There's at least one man who does not want the U.S. presidential campaign to be dominated by talk of a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, and that is Iraq's foreign minister.

Hoshyar Zebari is in Washington now. He's reaching out to the candidates, trying to give them, as he puts it, a realistic view of the situation in his country.

NPR's Michele Kelemen talked with the Iraqi foreign minister today at his hotel suite here in Washington.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari is trying to tread lightly in U.S. politics, though he clearly has a better feel for Republican John McCain.

Mr. HOSHYAR ZEBARI (Iraqi Foreign Minister): I know Senator McCain for many, many years. In the '90s he was a steadfast supporter of the Iraqi democratic opposition. Obama also I had the pleasure of meeting him in Baghdad two years ago, and he reassured me he's coming back to Baghdad.

KELEMEN: That's not the only reassurance the Iraqi foreign minister got when he had a lengthy talk by phone this morning with Democrat Barack Obama, who was campaigning in Michigan. Zebari says he found the Illinois senator to be realistic about withdrawing U.S. troops.

Mr. ZEBARI: I was reassured by Senator Obama that wouldn't there be any reckless, irresponsible decision. In fact, whatever decision he will take, it will be done through close consultation of the Iraqi government and the U.S. military commanders in the field.

KELEMEN: Obama told reporters traveling with him today that he was encouraged to hear the foreign minister talk about a reduction of violence in Iraq. But he said he still thinks it's important for the U.S. to begin the process of withdrawing U.S. troops to make it clear that Americans don't have an interest in permanent bases. He didn't say when he'll be going to Iraq, though he told reporters he's planning a trip before the election.

At a news conference in Virginia today, Republican John McCain pointed out that it has been nearly 900 days since Obama visited Iraq. And McCain argued that Obama is wrong to criticize the Bush administration's strategy there.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): I am convinced that we are on the path of victory. And that victory means Americans come home, but they come home with honor and victory, not in defeat. The consequences of Senator Obama's advocacy for a time for withdrawal and set dates without regard to conditions on the ground in my view leads to chaos and genocide.

KELEMEN: Iraqi Foreign Minister Zebari told NPR his country isn't seeking long-term security guarantees in the Status of Forces Agreement that's being negotiated. And he says the idea now is to have a one to two-year agreement with no talk of permanent bases.

Mr. ZEBARI: This agreement will not be binding for the next administration. I think we have been negotiating in good faith, trying to reach an acceptable agreement both for us and the Iraqi people and for the American people also.

KELEMEN: Zebari would like to clinch the agreement soon so it won't become the focus of the campaign, but the negotiations have proven to be difficult, particularly on the issues of immunity for U.S. military and civilian personnel and the Iraqi desire to have more oversight of U.S. military action.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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