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K9968 BC-TB-OBAMA-CAMPAIGN-200 07-21 1124

Campaign trail leads into Kabul

MCT REGIONAL NEWS

By Kim Barker and John McCormick

Chicago Tribune

(MCT)

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Jul. 20--KABUL, Afghanistan -- KABUL, Afghanistan -- Sen. Barack Obama cautiously toured this war-torn nation Saturday, kicking off a weeklong effort to appear presidential on the world stage while boosting his standing back home.

The Afghanistan leg is the first extended stop of an international journey designed to bolster the Illinois Democrat’s foreign-policy credentials in a contest against Republican Sen. John McCain, a Vietnam War hero with extensive foreign-policy experience.

Obama made no public appearances Saturday, his first trip to Afghanistan, but visited two U.S. bases--one near the eastern city of Jalalabad and Bagram Air Base.

On Sunday, he is expected to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai before departing on a widely anticipated trip to Iraq and a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

McCain, who has jousted with Obama over the Democrat’s call to set a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq, used a Saturday radio address to criticize Obama for establishing his views on Afghanistan and Iraq before leaving on the fact-finding trip.

"Apparently, he’s confident enough that he won’t find any facts that might change his opinion or alter his strategy," McCain said. He suggested that the rapidly deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan called for a surge in troops, much like the Bush administration sent to Iraq, as well as a national civil-military plan to increase security.

Security for Obama’s two-day visit to Afghanistan was so tight that the schedule was kept secret. Afghan officials said he met Saturday with one Afghan official -- the governor of an eastern province -- as well as U.S. officials and troops. Obama’s meeting with Gul Agha Shirzai, governor of Jalalabad’s Nangarhar province, was confirmed by a Sherzai spokesman. Sherzai, a former warlord, has won accolades for his cooperation with U.S. troops and his work to cut opium poppy production.

"Sherzai showed his concern about the security issues on the border of Nangarhar near Pakistan," said the spokesman, Ahmad Zia, adding that Sherzai also asked for more humanitarian aid.

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An hour later, witnesses said Obama and the two other U.S. senators on the trip, Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.), flew back to Kabul in a fleet of six helicopters, landing in the U.S. Embassy compound.

The U.S. military confirmed Obama and the other senators visited Bagram Air Base, the largest U.S. base in the country, and met top U.S. military leaders and troops. But most Afghans did not even know he was in the country. U.S. officials would not acknowledge it publicly or announce the senators’ upcoming appearances. Obama’s campaign said only that he arrived in Kabul.

"I want to, obviously, talk to the commanders and get a sense, both in Afghanistan and in Baghdad of ... their biggest concerns," Obama had said Thursday, before departing from Andrews Air Force Base. "I want to thank our troops for the heroic work that they’ve been doing."

Two reporters, one from the Tribune and one from The Associated Press , were allowed to fly with Obama from Chicago to Washington on Thursday afternoon as part of a media pool arrangement that required his departure not be reported until his campaign confirmed his arrival in Afghanistan.

Asked in Washington whether he planned to push for more self-governance in meetings with Karzai and Maliki, Obama stressed that he does not want to pre-empt President George W. Bush.

"I’m more interested in listening than doing a lot of talking," he said. "And I think it is very important to recognize that I’m going over there as a U.S. senator. We have one president at a time, so it’s the president’s job to deliver those messages."

En route to Afghanistan, the delegation briefly visited troops in Kuwait. The congressional delegation trip is paid for by taxpayers and will mark Obama’s second visit to Iraq after a stop there in January 2006. Obama plans to visit the Middle East and Europe in a separate campaign-funded trip later this week.

McCain has visited Afghanistan four times and Iraq eight times since 2000. The Arizona senator, who has made national security and foreign policy the centerpiece of his campaign, has criticized Obama for calling for a 16-month timetable for withdrawal.

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Obama has said the U.S. should start pulling troops from Iraq and instead focus on militants in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders are thought to be hiding.

The message is popular with many Afghans.

"If Afghans had a chance to vote for president in America, they would vote for Obama," said Fahim Dashty, a political analyst and editor of Kabul Weekly.

The capital Kabul illustrates the state of the country almost seven years after the fall of the Taliban.

There are more than 4 million people, about 600,000 cars, patchy roads and one working traffic light that most people ignore. Suicide bombings, once a rarity, are now common, along with spectacular militant attacks.

Recent assessments of the war in Afghanistan have been grim.

In June, U.S. and allied troops suffered their highest number of casualties since the invasion in late 2001. The coalition death toll was higher in Afghanistan than Iraq in May and June.

Last month the Pentagon issued a 72-page report predicting that violence in Afghanistan would continue to rise and would require more resources and attention.

On the street, Afghans were excited to hear that Obama was in the country, even though some didn’t know his name.

"I’ve heard of this tall, young, black guy," said Mohammad Ayub, 39, who sells cookies in Kabul. "People say good things about him, that he will do good for Afghanistan."

The Afghanistan United National Front, an opposition party, has endorsed Obama largely because of his desire to send in more troops and because he is seen as different from Bush.

"Anyone who hears the name Bush just thinks of fighting, bombing, Osama bin Laden and war," said Sayed Agha Hussain Sancharaki, spokesman for the National Front.

"Anyone who hears the name Obama thinks peace, prosperity, compromise and stability."

By Kim Barker and John McCormick. Kim Barker reported from Kabul and John McCormick from Washington.

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To see more of the Chicago Tribune, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.chicagotribune.com.

(c) 2008, Chicago Tribune

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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