WASHINGTON, Sep 12 (Reuters) The Democratic presidential hopefuls scrambled for advantage in the widening debate over Iraq today, with Barack Obama calling for combat troops to come home by the end of 2008 and Hillary Clinton asking the White House to speed any withdrawal.
The comments by Obama and Clinton prompted a wave of criticism and counter-proposals by campaign rivals on the eve of a speech to the country on Iraq by President George W Bush.
The Democratic candidates were competing for the affection of the party's large and influential anti-war wing.
In Iowa, which will hold the first presidential nominating contest for the November 2008 election in about four months, Obama emphasized his early opposition to the war and proposed bringing home one or two combat brigades a month until all combat forces were out by the end of next year.
''I am here to say that we have to begin to end this war now,'' the first-term Illinois senator said, although he did not specify how many troops would be left in Iraq. ''There is no military solution in Iraq and there never was.'' Obama's speech drew immediate criticism from rivals John Edwards, the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee, and Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, who questioned his lack of a firm timetable for pulling out all troops.
''Enough is enough. We don't need to 'begin' to end the war now. What we need to do now is actually end the war,'' said Edwards, who repeated his call for members of Congress to refuse to approve money to fight the war unless there is a timetable for troop withdrawal attached.
The exchange followed the appearance before the US Congress this week of the top US commander in Iraq, Gen David Petraeus, who recommended the withdrawal of up to 30,000 US troops by summer 2008. Bush is expected to endorse the proposal tomorrow.
'SOARING RHETORIC' Clinton sent Bush a letter saying those reductions would simply bring troop levels in Iraq back to the levels before he announced an increase in January.
''What you are planning to tell the American people tomorrow night is that one year from now, there will be the same number of troops in Iraq as there were one year ago,'' the New York senator said.
''Mr. President, that is simply too little too late, and unacceptable to this Congress and to the American people who have made clear their strong desire to bring our troops home,'' Clinton said.
Dodd said Obama had ''a gift for soaring rhetoric'' but lacked specifics, and said both Obama and Clinton should refuse to back war funds without attaching a withdrawal timetable.
''I was disappointed that Senator Obama's thoughts on Iraq today didn't include a firm, enforceable deadline for redeployment, and dismayed that neither he nor Senator Clinton will give an unequivocal answer on whether they would support a measure if it didn't have such an enforceable deadline,'' Dodd said.
Obama, an early war opponent and sponsor of a Senate bill to withdraw all combat troops from Iraq by the end of March 2008, said he would call for a new constitutional convention in Iraq, convened with the United Nations, that would not adjourn until Iraq's leaders reached a new agreement on political reconciliation.
But he cautioned against dumping Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who is viewed with deep skepticism by many U.S.
lawmakers. ''The problems in Iraq are bigger than one man,'' he said.
The Iowa speech was Obama's latest attempt to draw a contrast with Clinton, who voted in 2002 to authorize the military conflict but has since become a strong war critic.
Clinton has held a wide lead over Obama in national opinion polls for months, although polls show the two candidates locked in a tight race with Edwards in the crucial state of Iowa, home to a large core of anti-war activists.
Reuters SZ VP0248