Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- John McCain had one goal in mind when his turn came to question David Petraeus about the Iraq war: to show that Barack Obama didn't understand the dire threat Al Qaeda posed to that country's survival.

After some preliminary questions before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week about the performance of Iraqi forces and the threat to the Green Zone by rocket attacks from Sadr City, the Arizona senator began a series of inquiries about Al Qaeda's role in the war.

"There are numerous threats to security in Iraq and the future of Iraq. Do you still view Al Qaeda in Iraq as a major threat?" McCain asked the war commander.

"It is still a major threat, though it is certainly not as major a threat as it was, say, 15 months ago," Petraeus replied.

"Certainly not an obscure sect of the Shiites," McCain said, then quickly correcting himself about the Sunni-dominated terrorist force, "or Sunnis or anybody else?"

"No," Petraeus answered.

"Al Qaeda continues to try to assert themselves in Mosul, is that correct? he asked.

"It is, senator," the four-star general responded, adding that, "Mosul and Nineveh province are areas that Al Qaeda is very much trying to hold on to."

Attempting to further nail down the point he was making, McCain asked again, "They continue to be a significant threat?"

"They do. Yes, sir," Petraeus responded.

Though he never mentioned the Democratic presidential frontrunner by name, McCain wanted to dismantle one of Obama's chief contentions regarding the war: that there is no serious Al Qaeda threat in Iraq in terms of a military infrastructure with command centers, bases, etc., and it is time to begin a full withdrawal of all combat forces there.

Obama has from the beginning maintained that Al Qaeda was not in Iraq before the U.S invasion and only entered the country after Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled. His argument essentially maintains that the U.S. presence in Iraq is the sole cause of Al Qaeda presence in the country.

You would not be able to find any declaration in any of his campaign speeches that Al Qaeda, the radical Islamic terrorist force that killed nearly 3,000 Americans on Sept. 11, 2001, and many other people in attacks around the world, poses a dire threat to Iraq's fledgling democracy.

Indeed, if you visit Obama's campaign Web site and look up his position paper on U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and scroll down to the very bottom of it, you will see a rather extraordinary statement. Obama asserts that if, after pulling most of our troops out of Iraq, Al Qaeda were to establish bases there, he would go back in with strategic forces to eliminate them.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.