By SHABINA S. KHATRI
AL JAZEERA ENGLISH
July 28, 2008
CHICAGO – One day after finishing his trip to Europe and the Middle East, Barack Obama has said “fighting terrorism in Afghanistan” would be among his key areas of focus as US president.
Keeping Iran from developing nuclear weapons and shoring up the US economy are also top priorities, the presumed Democratic presidential candidate told a gathering of nearly 5,000 journalists from a variety of ethnic backgrounds in his hometown of Chicago, Illinois, on Sunday.
Afghanistan is a “huge problem” that the US “has to get right”, Obama told the Unity: Journalists of Color conference in his first public appearance since his overseas trip.
He linked that priority to the withdrawal of US troops in Iraq, forces that he said could be better used in Afghanistan.
Rival John McCain, Republican presidential candidate, has repeatedly criticised Obama for calling for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq over a 16-month period.
But Obama responded to the criticisms on Sunday by saying the US faces more pressing concerns both internationally and domestically.
“We can’t keep spending $10bn a year in Iraq when we have issues at home.
A new Gallup poll suggests that Obama’s political campaign is on track – he leads McCain by nine popularity percentage points.
On the question of economy, Obama said he would meet a group of economists this week to work on short- and long-term solutions to help those affected by the increasingly dismal US economy.
During Sunday’s session, Obama listened to questions about immigration reform and affirmative action.
At times, when pressed on the extent of his international diplomatic experience and his relationship with Muslims, Obama went on the defensive.
“I was puzzled by this notion that somehow what we were doing was in any way different from what Senator McCain or a lot of presidential candidates have done in the past.
“Now, I admit we did it really well,” Obama told amused journalists when asked about criticism that he may have come across as though he was running for “president of the world”.
Despite Republican criticisms, the majority of Sunday’s audience with Obama were impressed with his detailed answers, but some said they wanted more specifics on other topics, like offering reparations to Native Americans.
“I thought he handled himself well,” William Moore, a professor at Ohlore College in Fremont, California, told Al Jazeera.
“Everyone has to make reparations to the American Indians,” he said.
“We took their country and we’re still not paying any rent. It’s a tricky thing but certainly what’s going on in any reservation – Indians are still in really bad shape.”
McCain was also invited to the convention but declined, citing scheduling problems.
In an interview with ABC television broadcast on Sunday, McCain said Obama “doesn’t understand what’s at stake” in Iraq, referring to Obama’s continuing call for the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq within 16 months of taking office.
“He chose to take a political path that would have helped him get the nomination of his party. … And if we’d done what Senator Obama wanted done, it would have been chaos, genocide, increased Iranian influence, perhaps al-Qaeda establishing a base again,” McCain said.
During a town hall meeting last week in New Hampshire, McCain said that Obama “would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign”.
-Wire stories contributed to this report.