PORTSMOUTH, NH, Oct 3 (Reuters) US Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards today mocked rival Hillary Clinton's position on the Iraq war as Clinton stretched her lead in the party's campaign race.
Edwards, a former North Carolina senator, attacked Clinton for refusing to rule out that US troops might continue to engage in some combat missions in Iraq if she were to win the presidency in the November 2008 election.
''If you're not ending combat missions and combat operations, you're not ending the war,'' Edwards said in an afternoon speech in New Hampshire.
With concern rising about Iraqi civilians killed by private US security contractors, Edwards vowed he would transfer most security missions now done by contractors back to military command -- ''where they belong.'' ''We clearly need fundamental reform of the system for providing security contractors in Iraq or any place else,'' Edwards said.
Edwards and another rival, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, are trying to appeal to those Democrats who want US troops out of Iraq quickly.
With more than 3,800 Americans killed in Iraq, public sentiment is largely for extricating the United States from the 4-1/2-year-old conflict.
Edwards says he would get 40,000-50,000 troops out of Iraq immediately and withdraw all troops within nine or 10 months. Obama has said he would withdraw one or two US brigades a month from Iraq and have all troops out within 16 months.
Clinton, a New York senator and former first lady, has been less specific. She said, if elected and upon her inauguration in January 2009, she would order the Pentagon to draw up a plan to begin bringing troops home within 60 days.
''Our party, the Democratic Party, has to offer the American people real change, and that starts with ending this war for good, not just trimming it,'' Edwards said.
Clinton, at a debate in New Hampshire a week ago, would not rule out some US combat missions in Iraq if she were to win. Edwards said that represented a clear difference with how he would handle the war.
Obama, in a speech yesterday, said his initial opposition to the war, in contrast to Clinton's 2002 Senate vote that authorized the use of force in Iraq, made him ''the right person to end it.'' Edwards and Obama are trying to close what appears to be a widening gap between themselves and Clinton.
A new Washington Post/ABC News poll showed Clinton pulling away from her Democratic rivals with 53 per cent support, compared with 20 percent for Obama and 13 per cent for Edwards.
That was a 12-point jump for Clinton and a 7-point drop for Obama since early September.
Five other candidates seeking the Democratic nomination to run for president trail Clinton, Obama and Edwards in the polls.
REUTERS SBA AS0317