Mr. McCain said several times in his visit to Jordan — in a news conference and in a radio interview — that he was concerned that Iran was training Al Qaeda in Iraq. The United States believes that Iran, a Shiite country, has been training and financing Shiite extremists in Iraq, but not Al Qaeda, which is a Sunni insurgent group.
Mr. McCain said at a news conference in Amman that he continued to be concerned about Iranians “taking Al Qaeda into Iran, training them and sending them back.” Asked about that statement, Mr. McCain said: “Well, it’s 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.”
It was not until he got a quiet word of correction in his ear from Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, who was traveling with Mr. McCain as part of a Congressional delegation on a nearly weeklong trip, that Mr. McCain corrected himself.
“I’m sorry,” Mr. McCain said, “the Iranians are training extremists, not Al Qaeda.”
Mr. McCain has based his campaign in large part on his assertion that he is the candidate best prepared to deal with Iraq, and the Democrats wasted little time in jumping on his misstatement to question his knowledge and judgment.
“After eight years of the Bush administration’s incompetence in Iraq, McCain’s comments don’t give the American people a reason to believe that he can be trusted to offer a clear way forward,” Karen Finney, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee, said in a statement. “Not only is Senator McCain wrong on Iraq once again, but he showed he either doesn’t understand the challenges facing Iraq and the region or is willing to ignore the facts on the ground.”
Brian Rogers, a spokesman for the McCain campaign, responded: “In a press conference today, John McCain misspoke and immediately corrected himself by stating that Iran is in fact supporting radical Islamic extremists in Iraq, not Al Qaeda — as is reflected in the transcript. The reality is that the American people have deep concerns about the Democratic candidates’ judgment and readiness on matters of national security, and that’s why the D.N.C. launched their attack today.”
The Democrats noted that Mr. McCain, Republican of Arizona, had made similar comments about Iran training Al Qaeda in an interview with “The Hugh Hewitt Show,” a radio program he called from Amman. “As you know, there are Al Qaeda operatives that are taken back into Iran, given training as leaders, and they’re moving back into Iraq,” Mr. McCain said, according to a transcript posted on the show’s Web site.
It was not the first time that Mr. McCain’s remarks during a Congressional trip overseas have caused headaches for his campaign. It was nearly a year ago that his talk about the improving security situation in Iraq made headlines, after a trip he made to a marketplace there was guarded by more than 100 soldiers in armored Humvees and attack helicopters, becoming fodder for Democrats and critics of the war.
Mr. McCain later said he misspoke. And in a speech he gave last April about the need to succeed in Iraq, he made light of it. “I just returned from my fifth visit to Iraq,” he said. “Unlike the veterans here today, I risked nothing more threatening than a hostile press corps.”