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McCain defends 'pre-surge' comment

From NBC/NJ's Carrie Dann and NBC's Mark Murray
At a press conference today in Milwaukee, McCain defended himself from Democratic accusations that he misspoke Thursday, when he incorrectly said that the US had "drawn down to pre-surge levels" in Iraq.

Asked in the media avail if he got his facts wrong, McCain replied by stating that US troops levels are down -- but said nothing of pre-surge levels. "We have drawn down three of the five brigades. They're home. The marines [inaudible] are home. By the end of July, [inaudible] are back. That's just facts, those are just facts. The surge, we have drawn down from the surge and we will complete that drawdown to the end -- at the end of July. That's just a factual statement."

He added, "The important thing here is not that three of the five brigades are back, which they are and the others are coming back in July. It's whether they would have been sent in the first place and succeeded or failed. Sen. Obama said that the effect would be the reverse. So, he has no fundamental understanding of the entire situation that warranted the surge, which led to the success."

But according to NBC's Jim Miklaszewski and Courtney Kube, the US has NOT drawn down to "pre-surge levels" in Iraq -- and they will NOT be at those levels even after the five surge brigades finish redeploying later this summer. The math is a bit fuzzy, but here are the facts: The US now has 155,000 troops on the ground in Iraq, and that is 17 brigade combat teams plus combat support forces. The baseline number of troops, now commonly called the "pre-surge level," was about 132,000 troops, or 15 brigade combat teams, plus the support forces (engineers, medics, cooks, etc).

Three of the five surge brigades are fully redeployed back to the US. The fourth has already begun to redeploy now (heading back to Fort Lewis). All five brigades will be back in the US by the end of July. When all five surge brigades are out of Iraq, the US will still have between 140,000 and 144,000 troops on the ground -- about 10,000 more than the "pre-surge level." Why?  Most of the combat support and logistics troops will stay behind.  So will the additional MPs, aviation forces, and other individual battalions sent over in bits and pieces as the surge forces arrived last year.

In a conference call sponsored by the campaign, Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl (R) also defended McCain's comment yesterday. "It's instructive that the Obama campaign, rather than deal with that real issue and Obama's lack of experience, is trying to nitpick the verb -- or I guess the tense of the verb -- about the surge troops being home. So that's the bottom line: The surge troops are all going to be home by the end of July."

"Take the worst possibility here, which is Sen. McCain misspoke. And that because of the specific words used, what he said was not entirely accurate, Ok, so what? What does that amount to? That's the worst possible scenario."