The war in Iraq and U.S. relations with Iran dominated the latest debate among the eight Democrats seeking their party's presidential nomination next year. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.
All the Democratic contenders want to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq. But they differ over how many troops and how quickly.
In the debate, the three leading Democratic contenders would not pledge to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of their first term in 2013.
"Military personnel indicate we can get one to two brigades out per month. I would immediately begin that process," said Senator Barack Obama of Illinois. "We would get combat troops out of Iraq."
There was a more cautious response from the current Democratic frontrunner, Senator Hillary Clinton of New York.
"It is my goal to have all troops out by the end of my first term," she said. "But I agree with Barack [Obama]. It is very difficult to know what we are going to be inheriting."
Senator Clinton said U.S. troops might have to continue to carry out combat missions against terrorists inside Iraq.
Former North Carolina Senator John Edwards agreed that some troops would have to remain in Iraq. But he tried to draw a contrast with Senator Clinton.
"I would have our combat troops out of Iraq over a period of several months and I would not continue combat missions in Iraq," he said. "Combat missions mean that the war is continuing. I believe that this war needs to be brought to an end."
Some Democrats say they would pull out all U.S. forces within a matter of months if they were elected president.
"Their position basically is changing the mission," said New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. "My position, in bringing all troops out of Iraq, is to end the war."
Others emphasized regional diplomacy to shore up Iraq's security as U.S. troops withdrew.
"So, I believe that we ought to begin that process of redeployment here," said Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut. "I would simultaneously engage in the kind of robust diplomacy that has been totally missing from this administration."
The state of U.S. relations with Iran was also a major topic of debate.
Senator Clinton is among those who favors a mix of sanctions and diplomacy to dissuade Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
"I will do everything I can to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power including the use of diplomacy, the use of economic sanctions, opening up direct talks," she said. "We have not even tried."
A few hours before the debate, Senator Clinton supported a non-binding Senate resolution calling on the State Department to designate Iran's Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization.
That brought this reaction from former Senator John Edwards.
"I have no intention of giving George Bush the authority to take the first step on a road to war with Iran," he said.
Senator Obama noted that several Republican presidential contenders have threatened to use military force to stop Tehran from developing a nuclear capability.
"Until we have gathered the international community to put the squeeze on Iran economically, then we should not be having conversations about attacks in Iran," he said.
The debate was held at Dartmouth College in the early voting state of New Hampshire and was broadcast on MSNBC television.
Clinton continues to lead Obama and Edwards in national public opinion polls. But surveys in the early voting state of Iowa show a close race among the top three Democrats.
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