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MIDDLE EAST: McCain stumbles in Amman

March 19, 2008 |  8:28 am

Mccain2_3 Sen. John McCain has long presented himself as a seasoned statesman and foreign policy expert, someone with the wisdom and experience to guide the U.S. through troubled times.

That's why the media and his rivals pounced on him when he got a fundamental question regarding the violence in Iraq wrong.

McCain, standing before the Roman ruins in the Jordanian capital, said Iran was training and equipping Al Qaeda militants wreaking havoc in Iraq:

Well, it’s common knowledge and has been reported in the media that Al Qaeda is going back into Iran and receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran. That’s well known. And it’s unfortunate.

The U.S. military accuses Iran, a country of Shiite Persians, of supporting fellow Shiite groups in Iraq. Sunni Arab Al Qaeda fighters mostly come from U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, underscoring the complex overlays of violence and politics that bedevil an easy solution to the Iraq conflict. After Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman whispered in his ear, McCain corrected himself.

Tape, courtesy of CBS:

Of course Democrats jumped on the gaffe. Karen Finney, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee, issued a press release:

After eight years of the Bush administration’s incompetence in Iraq, McCain’s comments don’t give the American people a reason to believe that he can be trusted to offer a clear way forward. Not only is Senator McCain wrong on Iraq once again, but he showed he either doesn’t understand the challenges facing Iraq and the region or is willing to ignore the facts on the ground.

Democrats also noted that McCain had made similar comments during an interview on a conservative talk radio program, “The Hugh Hewitt Show."

Iran is trying build influence and cultivate players in Iraq as part of a centuries-old Persian quest. Iran considers Iraq's south part of its cultural and religious sphere of influence.

Tehran  may even be equipping Iraqi surrogates with weapons to use against U.S. troops in a complicated geopolitical game of "managed chaos" to keep Washington on its toes and away from its nuclear program.

Bottom line, Iran is playing a long game of Risk, not a quick round of Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots.

Distinguishing between the various brands of Islamist thinking and politics in the Middle East is not just splitting hairs. Organizations like Hezbollah in Lebanon or the Mahdi Army in Iraq are political movements with deep roots in their societies while Al Qaeda operates more like a secretive criminal gang.

As Jamal Mroue, the publisher of Beirut's English-language Daily Star told me during a chat last year:

You can't lump together [Hezbollah leader] Hassan Nasrallah and Osama bin Laden. You can fight them both as enemies, but they're not the same and they can't be fought in the same way.

Borzou Daragahi in Beirut

Photo: U.S. presidential hopeful Senator John McCain (R-AZ) speaks during a visit to the Amman Citadel, an ancient Roman landmark, March 18, 2008, in Amman, Jordan. Credit: Salah Malkawi/ Getty Images

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