A McCain Gaffe in Jordan
By Cameron W. Barr and Michael D. Shear
AMMAN, Jordan -- Sen. John McCain, traveling in the Middle East to promote his foreign policy expertise, misidentified in remarks Tuesday which broad category of Iraqi extremists are allegedly receiving support from Iran.
He said several times that Iran, a predominately Shiite country, was supplying the mostly Sunni militant group, al-Qaeda. In fact, officials have said they believe Iran is helping Shiite extremists in Iraq.
Speaking to reporters in Amman, the Jordanian capital, McCain said he and two Senate colleagues traveling with him continue to be concerned about Iranian operatives "taking al-Qaeda into Iran, training them and sending them back."
Pressed to elaborate, McCain said it was "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." A few moments later, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, standing just behind McCain, stepped forward and whispered in the presidential candidate's ear. McCain then said: "I'm sorry, the Iranians are training extremists, not al-Qaeda."
The mistake threatened to undermine McCain's argument that his decades of foreign policy experience make him the natural choice to lead a country at war with terrorists. In recent days, McCain has repeatedly said his intimate knowledge of foreign policy make him the best equipped to answer a phone ringing in the White House late at night.
McCain was in Jordan leading a week-long Congressional delegation and has stressed that the trip was not political, despite the decision to hold a fundraiser in London later this week.
But advisers said a side-benefit from the trip would be the image of McCain standing next to world leaders and showing his expertise on issues of war and terrorism.
The U.S. has long asserted that elements of the Iranian security forces have been training and supplying weapons to Iraq's Shiite militias. Iran is an overwhelmingly Shiite country whose government has applauded the emergence of a Shiite-led government in Iraq but has denied supporting Shiite militias inside Iraq.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq is a predominantly Sunni militant group which is blamed for deadly mass killings of Shiites, along with attacks on U.S. forces. Some extremist Sunni consider Shiites to be heretics and therefore legitimate targets of attack.
The schism between Islam's Sunni and Shiite sects grew out of a dispute over the leadership of the faithful following the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 AD.
Shear reported from Jerusalem.