DES MOINES, Aug. 11 - Even as they call for an end to the war and pledge to bring the troops home, the Democratic presidential candidates are setting out positions that could leave the United States engaged in Iraq for years.
John Edwards, the former North Carolina senator, would keep troops in the region to intervene in an Iraqi genocide and be prepared for military action if violence spills into other countries. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York would leave residual forces to fight terrorism and to stabilize the Kurdish region in the north. And Senator Barack Obama of Illinois would leave a military presence of as-yet unspecified size in Iraq to provide security for American personnel, fight terrorism and train Iraqis.
These positions and those of some rivals suggest that the Democratic bumper-sticker message of a quick end to the conflict - however much it appeals to primary voters - oversimplifies the problems likely to be inherited by the next commander in chief. Antiwar advocates have raised little challenge to such positions by Democrats.
Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico stands apart, having suggested that he would even leave some military equipment behind to expedite the troop withdrawal. In a forum at a gathering of bloggers last week, he declared: "I have a one-point plan to get out of Iraq: Get out! Get out!"
On the other side of the spectrum is Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, who has proposed setting up separate regions for the three major ethnic and religious groups in Iraq until a stable central government is established before removing most American troops.
Still, many Democrats are increasingly taking the position, in televised debates and in sessions with voters across the country, that ending a war can be as complicated as starting one.
"We've got to be prepared to control a civil war if it starts to spill outside the borders of Iraq," Mr. Edwards, who has run hard against the war, said at a Democratic debate in Chicago this week. "And we have to be prepared for the worst possibility that you never hear anyone talking about, which is the possibility that genocide breaks out and the Shi'a try to systematically eliminate the Sunni. As president of the United States, I would plan and prepare for all those possibilities."
Most of the Democratic candidates mention the significant military and logistical difficulties in bringing out American troops, which even optimistic experts say would take at least a year. The candidates are not only trying to retain flexibility for themselves in the event they become president, aides said, but are also hoping to tamp down any expectation that the war would abruptly end if they were elected. Most have not proposed specific troop levels or particular rules of engagement for a continued presence in Iraq, saying the conditions more than a year from now remain too uncertain.
In political terms, their strategies are a balancing act. In her public appearances, Mrs. Clinton often says, "If this president does not end this war before he leaves office, when I am president, I will." But she has affirmed in recent months remarks she made to The New York Times in March, when she said that there were "remaining vital national security interests in Iraq" that would require a continuing deployment of American troops. The United States' security, she said then, would be undermined if part of Iraq turned into a failed state" that serves as a Petri dish for insurgents and Al Qaeda."
So while the senators' views expressed on the campaign trail do not conflict with their votes in Congress, particularly to set a deadline for withdrawal, they are grappling as candidates with the possibility of a sustained military presence in Iraq, addressing questions about America's responsibility to Iraqi civilians as well as guarding against the terrorism threat in the region.
Among the challenges the next president could face in Iraq, three seem to be resonating the most: What to do if there is a genocide? What to do if chaos in Iraq threatens to engulf the region in a wider war? And what to do if Iraq descends into further lawlessness and becomes the staging ground for terrorist attacks elsewhere, including in the United States?
"While the overwhelming majority of Americans want to bring the troops home, the question is what is the plan beyond that?" said Gov. Chet Culver of Iowa, a Democrat. "The first candidate running for president, I think on either side, who can best articulate that will win."
Four years after the last presidential race featured early signs of war protest, particularly in the candidacy of Howard Dean, a new phase of the debate seems to be unfolding, with antiwar groups giving the Democrats latitude to take positions short of a full and immediate withdrawal. Neither MoveOn.org nor its affiliated group, Americans Against Escalation in Iraq, have sought to press Democrats here in Iowa to suggest anything short of ending the war immediately.
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"Of course we would like to get them out right now. That sounds wonderful," said Sue Dinsdale, who leads the Iowa chapter of Americans Against Escalation in Iraq and has seen nearly all of the Democratic candidates. "I don't think that people realize what their specific plans are and what they are saying about it, but just that they are working to end the war."
The leading Republican candidates have largely chosen not to wrestle publicly with Iraq policy questions, instead deferring to President Bush and waiting until Gen. David H. Petraeus delivers a progress report next month on the troop buildup this year.
While the Democrats talk exhaustively about Iraq, a review of the remarks they have made during campaign stops over the last six months leaves little ambiguity in their message: If the president refuses to end the war, they will.
To accomplish that goal, they all discuss a mix of vigorous diplomacy in the region, intensified pressure on the Iraqi government and a phased withdrawal of troops to begin as soon as possible. But their statements in campaign settings are often silent on the problems of how to disengage and what tradeoffs might be necessary.
"It is time to bring our troops home because it has made us less safe," Mr. Obama said to a throng of supporters, cheering wildly despite the pouring rain, at a campaign stop in New Hampshire last month.
Mrs. Clinton has been equally vocal in making "bringing the troops home" a central theme. In February, she said her message to the Iraqi government would be simple: "I would say 'I'm sorry, it's over. We are not going to baby-sit a civil war.' "
Both candidates, in interviews or debates, have said that they would not support intervening in a genocidal war should the majority Shiites slaughter Sunnis - and Sunnis retaliate - on a much greater scale than now takes place.
Mr. Edwards, who has suggested that he would intervene in a genocide, has tried to position himself as the more forceful antiwar candidate by criticizing both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama for not pushing hard enough in the Senate to bring the troops home.
"There are differences between us," Mr. Edwards said in a June debate. "I think there is a difference between making very clear when the crucial moment comes, on Congress ending this war, what your position is and standing quiet."
Senator Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut has called for the United States military to "begin redeploying immediately." In a debate this week in Chicago, he said: "We can do so with two and a half divisions coming out each month, done safely and reasonably well."
Americans Against Escalation in Iraq has created its "Iraq Summer" campaign to persuade members of Congress to support legislation changing course in Iraq. While the group is focusing on Republicans across the country, including deploying a blimp to fly above the Iowa straw poll on Saturday, it has not weighed in on the Democratic side of the presidential race and the fact that several Democratic candidates call for an extended but limited military commitment in Iraq. "We are in a good position when leaders are debating the best way to bring our troops home," said Moira Mack, a group spokeswoman, "rather than whether or not to bring them home."
© 2007 The New York Times