DES MOINES, Iowa -- Even as they call for an end to the war and pledge to bring the troops home, the Democratic presidential candidates are setting out positions that could leave the United States engaged in Iraq for years.
John Edwards, the former North Carolina senator, would keep troops in the country to intervene in an Iraqi genocide and be prepared for military action if violence spills into other countries. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York would leave residual forces to fight terrorism and to stabilize the Kurdish region in the north. And Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois would leave a military presence of as-yet unspecified size in Iraq to provide security for American personnel, fight terrorism and train Iraqis.
These positions and those of some rivals suggest that the Democratic bumper-sticker message of a quick end to the conflict - however much it appeals to primary voters - oversimplifies the problems likely to be inherited by the next commander in chief. Antiwar activists have raised little challenge to such positions by Democrats.
Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico stands apart, having suggested that he would even leave some military equipment behind to expedite the troop withdrawal. At a recent gathering of bloggers, he declared: "I have a one-point plan to get out of Iraq: Get out! Get out!"
On the other side of the spectrum is Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, who has proposed setting up separate regions for the three major ethnic and religious groups in Iraq until a stable central government is established before removing most U.S. troops.
Still, many Democrats are increasingly taking the position, in televised debates and in sessions with voters, that ending a war can be as complicated as starting one.
"We've got to be prepared to control a civil war if it starts to spill outside the borders of Iraq," Edwards, who has run hard against the war, said at a Democratic debate in Chicago last week. "And we have to be prepared for the worst possibility that you never hear anyone talking about, which is the possibility that genocide breaks out and the Shia try to systematically eliminate the Sunni. As president of the United States, I would plan and prepare for all those possibilities."
Most of the Democratic candidates mention the significant military and logistical difficulties in bringing out U.S. troops, which even optimistic experts say would take at least a year. The candidates are not only trying to retain flexibility for themselves in the event they become president, aides said, but are also hoping to suppress any expectation that the war would abruptly end if they were elected.
Most have not proposed specific troop levels or particular rules of engagement for a continued presence in Iraq, saying the conditions more than a year from now remain too uncertain.
So while the senators' views expressed on the campaign trail do not conflict with their votes in Congress, particularly to set a deadline for withdrawal, they are grappling as candidates with the possibility of a sustained military presence in Iraq and addressing questions about America's responsibility to Iraqi civilians as well as guarding against the terrorism threat in the region.
Among the challenges the next president could face in Iraq, three seem to be resonating the most: What to do if there is genocide. What to do if chaos in Iraq threatens to engulf the region in a wider war. And what to do if Iraq descends into further lawlessness and becomes the staging ground for terrorist attacks elsewhere, including in the United States.
"While the overwhelming majority of Americans want to bring the troops home, the question is what is the plan beyond that?" said Gov. Chet Culver of Iowa, a Democrat. "The first candidate running for president, I think on either side, who can best articulate that will win."
While the Democrats talk exhaustively about Iraq, a review of the remarks they have made during campaign stops over the last six months leaves little ambiguity in their message: If the president refuses to end the war, they will.
To accomplish that goal, they all discuss a mix of vigorous diplomacy in the region, intensified pressure on the Iraqi government and a phased withdrawal of troops to begin as soon as possible. But their statements in campaign settings are often silent on how to disengage and what tradeoffs might be necessary.
Obama and Clinton have said that they would not support intervening in a genocidal war should the majority Shiites slaughter Sunnis - and Sunnis retaliate - on a much greater scale than now takes place.
Edwards, who has suggested that he would intervene in a genocide, has tried to position himself as the more forceful antiwar candidate by criticizing Clinton and Obama for not pushing hard enough in the Senate to bring the troops home.
"There are differences between us," Edwards said in a June debate. "I think there is a difference between making very clear when the crucial moment comes, on Congress ending this war, what your position is and standing quiet."