Democratic hopefuls compete on how to end Iraq war (Roundup)
By Tony Czuczka Jun 4, 2007, 2:47 GMT
Manchester, New Hampshire - Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton said Sunday that her first act as president would be to end the US military presence in Iraq, and she accused Iraqis of wasting their chance for democracy.
Iraq and national security were recurring themes in the televised debate between eight Democratic hopefuls in New Hampshire, the state where both US major parties are holding their first primary elections in early 2008.
Clinton's rivals for the centre-left presidential nomination tried to put the US senator from New York state on the defensive for having voted for the Congressional war authorization that preceded the 2003 US-led of invasion of Iraq, ordered by President George W Bush.
Clinton, seeking to become the first female president in US history, pushed back with calm determination. At the end of the two- hour debate, her opponents appeared to have scored no major points against her.
She refused to be drawn out on Iran, calling for intensified diplomacy but insisting that Iran must be prevented 'at all costs' from getting nuclear weapons. When an audience member asked the candidates for their most urgent priorities, Clinton was clear.
'Well, if President Bush has not ended the war in Iraq, to bring our troops home. That would be the very first thing that I would do,' she said, drawing applause from an audience of several hundred at St Anselm's College in Manchester, New Hampshire.
Barack Obama, a charismatic senator from Illinois who is considered Clinton's closest competitor, agreed - but added reforming US health care, which is shaping up as a major campaign issue.
Clinton sought to shift blame to Iraqis, paying tribute to US troops who she said had provided a chance for democracy that Iraqis were squandering.
'They gave the Iraqi people a chance for elections and to have a government,' she said. 'It is the Iraqis who have failed to take advantage of that opportunity.'
Clinton's personal and political history - and that of her husband, former president Bill Clinton - is likely to be a major target of the centre-right Republicans if she wins the Democratic nomination. With the Iraq war weighing heavily on the national mood, rivals within her own party are also homing in.
Obama, who only joined the Senate in 2005 and did not have to vote on the initial Iraq authorization, pointed out that he opposed the war from the start.
John Edwards, the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee and another top candidate, portrayed himself as more anti-war than both Clinton and Obama, though as a US senator he voted with Clinton for the Iraq authorization.
Out of office since 2005, Edwards said that he opposed recent compromise legislation on Iraq, which dropped a timetable for a US troop withdrawal from a war funding bill to avoid a veto by Bush.
He blasted Democrats in Congress for supporting the compromise and even criticized Clinton and Obama for 'quietly' voting against the funding measure. 'I think it's the difference between leading and following,' Edwards said.
Given a chance to reply, Obama shot back at Edwards: 'The fact is is that I opposed this war from the start. So you're about four and a half years late on leadership on this issue.'
New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, a former ambassador to the United Nations, said he would swiftly ask Congress to 'de-authorize' the Iraq war - which he called a civil war - if he became president.
Edwards and Richardson stressed that they would make re- establishing US 'moral authority' in the world a top goal.
Other topics during the two-hour debate included energy policy, the environment and proposals by all of the major Democratic candidates to expand health care insurance.
With Bush constitutionally barred from seeking a third term, US voters will choose a new president in November 2008, and campaigning is already in full swing within both major parties.
The Republicans will hold their own presidential debate Tuesday in Manchester.© 2007 dpa - Deutsche Presse-Agentur