Politics & Government

Obama downplays Mideast peace outlook, vows to try to help

AMMAN, Jordan — Heading into a full day of meetings Wednesday with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Barack Obama said Tuesday that if he's elected he'll push for a two-state peace settlement "from the minute I'm sworn in to office," but added that "it's unrealistic to expect that a U.S. president alone can suddenly snap his fingers and bring about peace in this region."

In a news conference at the historic ruins of the Citadel in Jordan's capital, Amman, just hours after completing a visit to Afghanistan, Obama also said that what he'd seen and heard there only underscored his desire to withdraw U.S. combat troops from Iraq over a 16-month period and to add more forces in Afghanistan.

He said that Iraqi leaders wanted to take charge of their country, while Afghanistan was deteriorating rapidly and threatened the safety of Pakistan and ultimately the United States. He termed the situation "perilous and urgent."

"That is where the 9-11 attacks were planned," the presumptive Democratic nominee said. "And today in Afghanistan and the border region of Pakistan, al Qaida and the Taliban are mounting a growing offensive against the security of the Afghan people, and increasingly the Pakistani people, while plotting new attacks against the United States."

Obama condemned an attack in Jerusalem earlier in the day by a Palestinian who drove a heavy construction backhoe into a bus and at least five cars, and he said it could complicate Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. At least 16 people were injured before a driver and a police officer shot the attacker dead. He was later identified as a 22-year-old resident of East Jerusalem with an Israeli ID.

Obama said that attacks such as that were likely to make the Israelis "want to dig in and simply think about their own security."

"Today's bulldozer attack is a reminder of what Israelis have courageously lived with on a daily basis for far too long," he said. "I strongly condemn this attack and will always support Israel in confronting terrorism and pursuing lasting peace and security."

The attack took place outside the King David Hotel, where Obama planned to stay while he was in Israel. He said he wouldn't change his plans.

Local Arab journalists pressed Obama for a detailed stance on Palestinian land rights or the politics of peace negotiations with Israelis, but the Illinois senator kept his answers fairly general.

He sounded less than optimistic about any immediate peace prospects, saying that the Israeli government was unsettled and the Palestinians were divided between the Fatah and Hamas movements. "So it's difficult for either side to make the bold move that would bring about peace," he said.

Nevertheless, he stressed that as president, he'd be committed to helping.

"My goal is to make sure that we work starting from the minute I'm sworn in to office to try to find some breakthroughs," Obama said.

In Amman, Obama was flanked by Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., who accompanied him to the war zones. They also joined Obama for dinner with Jordan's King Abdullah after the two met privately. Later Abdullah personally drove Obama to the airport in a Mercedes sedan.

Asked about last year's increase of U.S. troops in Iraq, which has contributed to growing stability there, Obama acknowledged that it had helped but stood by his steadfast opposition to it. He suggested that his January 2007 proposal to begin troop withdrawals to pressure Iraqis to reconcile might have worked too.

"I believe that the situation in Iraq is more secure than it was a year and a half ago," he conceded, adding: "Originally, the administration suggested that the key measure was whether it gave breathing room for political reconciliation. So far, I think we have not seen the kind of political reconciliation that's going to bring about long-term stability in Iraq."

John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, hammered Obama again Tuesday at a town hall meeting in New Hampshire for not supporting the troop buildup.

McCain reminded voters that he'd pushed for the extra troops at great political risk since initially he was opposing the president of his party. He repeated his line that he'd rather lose an election than lose a war.

Now, he said, Obama is in the opposite position, sticking with his opposition to the troop increase to appeal to antiwar voters.

"Senator Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign," McCain said to scattered applause.

(Steven Thomma contributed to this report from Washington.)