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Iraq Dominates Early Phase of US 2008 Presidential Race

The war in Iraq continues to dominate the early phase of the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone reports from Washington.

The differences over Iraq among presidential contenders from both major parties were on display at a candidate's forum held by the International Association of Fire Fighters in Washington.

The Democratic candidates who spoke generally focused on how the United States can eventually withdraw its troops from Iraq over the next year or two.

"We should not be sending more troops to Iraq. We should be bringing them home. It is time to find an end to this war. And that is why I have a plan that will begin withdrawing our troops from Iraq on May 1st of this year with the goal of removing all of our combat forces from the country by March of 2008," said Democratic Senator Barack Obama of Illinois.

Obama is mounting a strong challenge to the frontrunner in the Democratic presidential field, New York Senator Hillary Clinton.

Clinton told the firefighters that it is time for Iraq's military to assert itself and take on the brunt of the fighting.

"We cannot end this war for them. If they are not going to stand up and take responsibility, we should not lose another American life. We should end this escalation now!," she said.

The Republican presidential contenders who addressed the firefighters were much more supportive of President Bush and the recent U.S. troop surge into Iraq.

Arizona Senator John McCain warned of the consequences of a quick withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.

"The hour is late, but we must try. We must. If we fail in Iraq, the damage to our interests and the repercussions we will confront will be so serious that we could be drawn into a wider and more terrible war," he said.

McCain said he is cautious, but encouraged, by the impact of the troop surge in Baghdad, which he said is having some success in reducing sectarian violence.

McCain's view was echoed by another Republican contender, California Congressman Duncan Hunter, who recently visited Iraq.

"We are being successful in Iraq if we continue to stand up the Iraqi military, and I think that this government that is in place right now will hold," he said.

All those who spoke paid tribute to the military veterans who have served in Iraq and promised to provide better health care for returning soldiers if elected.

About 1,000 members of the firefighters union are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and union leaders as well as rank and file members have expressed anger about the recent revelations of poor outpatient care for veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in the nation's capital.