WASHINGTON -- Republican frontrunner John McCain drew sharp distinctions with his Democratic White House rivals over Iraq, saying an untimely US withdrawal would bring about "genocide."
In an interview with CNN, the presumptive Republican nominee for president slammed Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, who have said they would begin withdrawing troops from Iraq in their first months in the White House.
"Both Senator Obama and Clinton want to set a date for withdrawal. That means chaos. That means genocide," the 71-year-old Arizona senator told CNN's Larry King late Thursday.
"That means undoing all the success we've achieved, and Al-Qaeda tells the world they defeated the United States of America. I won't let that happen, as president of the United States."
Long a fervent advocate of the surge policy in Iraq, McCain praised Defense Secretary Robert Gates and called the commander of US forces in Iraq, General David Petraeus, "one of the great generals in American military history."
He might even ask Gates to stay on at the Pentagon if he is elected president, McCain hinted.
"I'll tell you, I don't know if he would stay on, or if I would even ask him or something like that, but I'm very pleased, as I think most Americans are, at the performance of Secretary Gates. I think he's done a very fine job," McCain said.
McCain, a sharp critic of Gates, predecessor Donald Rumsfeld and his handling of the war, said the current strategy with far more troops on the ground is succeeding.
"It's a strategy we should have employed from the beginning," he said.
"And neither Senator Obama nor Senator Clinton had any experience of knowledge to know that this surge would succeed," charged McCain, a Vietnam War hero and former prisoner of war.
He said Americans were "frustrated and saddened" by the sacrifices of war but that the consequences of failure were untenable.
"Look, don't listen to me. Listen to Al-Qaeda. They're the ones that say that their goal is the United States of America. And victory in Iraq is a stepping stone to that."
Clinton has said she would start withdrawing troops within 60 days of becoming president. Obama says he would have all US combat brigades out of Iraq within 16 months.