DES MOINES — Listen to a Democratic presidential candidate talk about Iraq and you'll likely get the bumper-sticker promise to end the war: U.S. troops out, war over.
But most of them don't really believe it should be that neat and simple. What they seldom emphasize as they court anti-war primary voters is that they'd leave at least some U.S. troops — perhaps tens of thousands — in Iraq, or nearby, indefinitely, perhaps for years.
That fact fueled a clash Sunday during a Democratic debate in the early-voting state of Iowa, providing a rare if vague look at what might happen in Iraq after a Democratic president withdrew U.S. combat forces.
``It's going to be messy,'' said Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois. ``There are no good options.''
The debate underscored a political challenge for the Democrats: how to appeal to primary voters who want desperately to get out of Iraq while not promising a faster or more-complete withdrawal than they think wise.
``It is so important that we not oversell this,'' said Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.
``It's the purists versus the pragmatists,'' said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University, which hosted the 90-minute debate televised nationally on ABC. ``You can't just wave the magic wand and have the U.S. disappear from the area. Yet the Democrats don't stress what they would do because it's a tough sell for a Democratic audience.''
The purist, in Goldford's words, is New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who's urging a complete withdrawal of all U.S. forces within months.
``We have to get all the troops out, all of them,'' Richardson said. ``Our kids are dying. Our troops have become targets.''
He challenged Clinton and others to say how many troops they'd leave in Iraq. ``Is it 25,000, 50,000, 75,000?'' he asked.
None responded with specific numbers. But most of the candidates — except Richardson, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska — have said they would leave forces behind to protect the U.S. embassy, launch attacks against terrorists, or train Iraqi forces.
``This war must end, but there's much more at stake as to how it ends,'' said Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del. ``If it ends with this country splintering, we will have, for a generation, our grandchildren engaged in a regional war that will be consequential far beyond Iraq.''
He said he'd keep troops in Iraq to protect civilians. He also wants to separate the three factions of Iraq — Sunnis, Shia and Kurds — and cites as an example the use of U.S. troops in the Balkans to keep warring factions apart there.
``This is going to take awhile,'' Clinton said, dismissing prospects of a quick withdrawal. ``This is going to be very dangerous and very difficult. A lot of people don't like to hear that.''
She didn't say how many troops she'd leave in Iraq.
But she said in a speech this summer that she'd keep U.S. troops there to train Iraqis, might deploy U.S. troops to the Kurdish North and would send special units to attack al-Qaida and other terrorist groups in the region.
Obama also didn't specify how many troops he'd leave there, but has said he would leave ``a limited number'' of troops to ``to engage in counter-terrorism and to continue the training of Iraqi security forces.''
Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina did not commit during the debate. But in a May speech, he said he'd keep forces close. ``Once we are out of Iraq,'' he said, ``the U.S. must retain sufficient forces in the region to prevent a genocide, deter a regional spillover of the civil war, and prevent an al-Qaida safe haven."