HANOVER, NH, Sep 27 (Reuters) Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards today criticized rival Hillary Clinton's position on ending the Iraq war at a debate as he sought to undercut Clinton's status as the campaign front-runner.
Edwards took issue with Clinton's position that she would not rule out US troops engaging in some combat missions in Iraq if she were to win the November 2008 race to replace President George W Bush.
''To me that's a continuation of the war,'' Edwards said at the start of the Democratic-sponsored debate at Dartmouth College. ''Combat missions mean that the war is continuing. I believe the war needs to be brought to an end.'' Clinton, enjoying a lead over third-place Edwards and second-place Illinois senator Barack Obama in opinion polls, defended her position, saying US troops might be needed to attack al Qaeda targets in Iraq .
''There may be a continuing counter-terrorism mission,'' she said, while adding that ''the vast majority'' of American troops would be out of Iraq by 2013.
The debate was the first of the critical autumn time period leading up to the early voting contests in January and came as the candidates sought to have a good showing with the third-quarter fund-raising period drawing to an end.
But the top three Democrats in the race -- Edwards, a former North Carolina senator, and Clinton, a New York senator, and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama -- could not pledge to bring all US troops out of Iraq by the end of their prospective first term in 2013.
''I think it's hard to project four years from now,'' said Obama.
But he vowed that if elected, he would drastically reduce America's military presence in Iraq, limiting it to protecting the US embassy, humanitarian workers and carrying out counter-terrorism activities.
Iraq was a dominant theme at the debate as Democrats seek a strategy to force Bush to accept a shift in course away from his troop build-up plan, which could mean as many as 100,000 troops could still be in Iraq by the time the next president is inaugurated in January 2009.
Reuters KK VP0746