CONCORD, N.H. – Three potential presidential candidates agreed Saturday that there's no easy way out of Iraq, but they took widely different approaches to the challenge.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson was the only one to suggest a pullout date for the American military, saying Iraqi security forces should be trained to take over by the end of this year or early next year.
"The time has come for a withdrawal," he told a group of Democrats gathered at a private home.
"Our obsession with Iraq has caused us to glaringly miss some of our real challenges," he said of Iran, North Korea and Al Qaeda.
But Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, speaking earlier in the day, argued this is not the time to leave Iraq.
"To do so would leave the Iraqis in a setting where extreme violence could ensue and it would be irresponsible for us to change a regime, cause the collapse of their system of security, and walk away," Romney told a group of Republican women in Concord.
He also said Islamic jihadists want to destroy America's economy and its superpower status.
"Fortunately we have a president who recognizes how severe this threat is and realizes we have to wage war against such tactics and such a vision," he said.
Another possible candidate, retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, said at New England College that preventing civil war in Iraq will require America's political influence, not just its military force.
Clark, who sought the Democratic nomination for president in 2004, said the United States should be pushing Shiite Muslims to include Sunnis in the government and to ensure that the country's oil wealth is shared by all.
"It is a political problem primarily, not a military one," he said on the third anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion.
Clark opposed setting a pullout date for American military forces.
"If we pull out before there's stability in Iraq, before there's been peacemaking between the Sunnis and the Shi'as, I do think the likelihood is we'll have deeper conflict and it will become regional in scale."
Clark noted that the tensions between the two major Muslim sects extend beyond Iraq.
"That's a 1,300-year civil war within Islam that's being fought out in Iraq right now," he said.
Richardson, Romney and Clark did not speak of their own plans for 2008.