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Tue 5 Feb 2008 01:30 PM

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McCain insists on long-term Iraq presence

Republican US presidential candidate warns against caving in to forces of 'evil'.

Republican White House hopeful John McCain insisted Monday the US must maintain a long-term presence in Iraq and accused Democratic rivals of caving in to the forces of "evil".

But asked whether he would establish permanent bases in Iraq, the Arizona senator, tipped to take a grip on the nomination in Tuesday's nationwide nominating contests, said such a decision should be left to the government in Baghdad.

"We'll have arrangements with Iraq - the same kind we've made with a number of countries," he told reporters following a rally in Boston, Massachusetts.

"Some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, we left. There are other countries, because of our relationship, like Turkey, we stayed. It's agreements between countries, we all know that."

McCain, who had previously said the US presence in Iraq could last 100 years, said voters understood "America as a world superpower has to have power around the world" and are happy to have troops stationed in places like Kuwait and Korea.

He attacked Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for advocating a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq which he said showed "their fundamental lack of experience and judgment about national security issues".

"What Americans are frustrated, sad and angry about is the mishandling of this war which caused so much unnecessary sacrifice," he said.

"It's a false argument to say how long we're going to stay, because they don't understand warfare.

"Warfare has got to do with victory or defeat. They want to declare defeat; I want us to continue to have this victory."

Clinton and Obama, potential general election opponents for McCain, have taken to casting doubt on whether the US public backs prolonging the Iraq war.

The former first lady says she would start withdrawing troops within 60 days of becoming president. Obama says he would have all US combat brigades out of Iraq within 16 months.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last month that a planned military agreement with Iraq would not include any permanent US military bases there.

But Democrats are calling for any pact with Iraq on future deployments to be brought before Congress for approval.

McCain said the situation in Iraq is improving and that he expects the commander of US forces in Iraq, General David Petraeus, to "give us a more optimistic scenario" when he reports to congress in March.

A drawdown in troops has already begun as US forces return to pre-surge levels and McCain said at a rally in New Jersey that he was optimistic that he could find "a successful way out of there where we bring our troops home with honor".

A Vietnam war hero, McCain has faced sharp criticism for his unflinching support of the Iraq war. He has advocated an expansion of the armed forces to ease the burden on the civilian volunteers in the national guard.

"The main reason I am running for president of the United States of America is because of the transcendent challenge of the 21st century which is radical Islamic extremism," he told the Boston rally.

"It's the kind of evil that we must, must defeat and we will never surrender," he insisted. "I will not let Al-Qaeda tell the world they defeated the United States of America."

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