SAN DIEGO — Barack Obama mourned the death of nine U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan on Sunday, even as he said John McCain's numerous visits to the region don't leave the Republican better equipped to deal with its volatility as president.
Preparing to embark on only his second visit to Iraq, as well as his first to Afghanistan, the Democrat told reporters: "I will recall the visit he made last year in which he was surrounded by helicopters and SWAT teams and he came back and reported how safe everything was in Baghdad. And I don't think that that was indicative of what was actually happening on the ground at that time."
McCain, a Vietnam War veteran, has chided Obama for the dearth of time he has spent in the region, failing to meet with Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and not holding a congressional oversight hearing on U.S. security matters.
Asked about such criticism, Obama said: "John McCain has been in Congress 25 years, no doubt about that. If this is a longevity measure, then John McCain wins. On the other hand, before we went into Iraq, I knew the difference between Shia and Sunni."
That was a dig at the Arizona senator, who once confused the majority and minority ethnic groups in Iraq.
Obama also said that "on the big strategic issues that are at stake," there's no case where he "has been proven wrong."
The McCain campaign pounced on the comments.
"If Barack Obama believes that visiting Iraq and meeting with commanders will not give him any new perspective, then we can only assume he's going just to smile for the cameras," said spokesman Tucker Bounds.
McCain has said that an August 2003 visit to Iraq _ just five months after U.S. forces invaded _ convinced him of the need to change strategy following the fall of Baghdad. And he has said that a December 2006 visit persuaded him to support a surge of additional U.S. forces to reduce violence and stabilize key regions.
McCain also said throughout the primary campaign he would rather lose the election over his position than lose the war _ and today argues his adherence to principle shows he puts country above himself. He has suggested Obama is adhering blindly to an antiwar position for political gain.
Obama opened his news conference with a tribute to the soldiers, who were killed in a raid by militants in eastern Kunar province, the deadliest single attack for the U.S. since June 2005. Fourteen more U.S. troops were injured.
"The main thing I want to communicate is that our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of these extraordinary heroes," Obama said. "And we need to make sure that we're providing them with every bit of support that we can."
The Illinois senator has called for redeploying U.S. forces from Iraq to Afghanistan, a point he underscored Sunday.
"Part of the job of the next president is to look at our overall strategic landscape and make certain that we are using the most precious resources we have _ which is the extraordinary young men and women in uniform _ in a way that maximizes American security, and that's not something I believe that we've done over the last several years," he said.
On Saturday, during a news conference aboard his campaign plane, Obama revealed he would be accompanied on his upcoming battlefront tour by Sens. Chuck Hagel and Jack Reed, military veterans who are often mentioned as potential vice presidential running mates.
Hagel, R-Neb., served as an Army sergeant in Vietnam and was twice wounded in 1968, earning two Purple Hearts. Reed, D-R.I., is a West Point graduate. He was an Army Ranger and paratrooper.
"They reflect, I think, a traditional bipartisan wisdom when it comes to foreign policy. Neither of them are ideologues but try to get the facts right and make a determination about what's best for U.S. interests _ and they're good guys," Obama said.
Obama plans to visit Europe as well, and he told reporters that he hoped to resolve concerns expressed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel about using Brandenburg Gate as a backdrop for a speech in Berlin. Merkel questioned the propriety of a foreign political figure using such a historic backdrop as that former Communist demarkation point to deliver a campaign speech.
"I want to make sure that my message is heard as opposed to creating a controversy," Obama said. "So, you know, our goal is just for me to lay out how I think about the next administration's role in rebuilding a trans-Atlantic alliance, so I don't want the venue to be a distraction. What I want to do is just work with folks on the ground to find someplace that's appropriate."
Obama said that while removing U.S. forces from Iraq won't be "perfectly neat," he said a call from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for a withdrawal timetable supports his position more than the longer-term presence favored by McCain or his fellow Republican, President Bush.
"John McCain and George Bush both said that if Iraq, as a sovereign government, stated that it was time for us to start withdrawing our troops, then they would respect the wishes of that sovereign government," Obama said.