Democrat Barack Obama, bidding to shut down scornful attacks on his White House credentials by Republican rival John McCain, said Monday he plans a pre-election trip to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Senator Obama, newly endorsed by former vice president Al Gore, also went after McCain on the economy as the candidates intensified a war of words on the long march to November's vote.
"As I've said, I'm interested in visiting Iraq and Afghanistan before the election," said Obama, who has been vilified by McCain for visiting Iraq only once, in January 2006.
Senator McCain, who has been to Iraq eight times, said he had no doubt that the U.S. military "surge" was working and that Obama's plans to pull most combat troops out of the troubled nation would trigger "chaos and genocide."
"I am convinced that we are on the path to victory. And that victory means Americans come home, but they come home with honor in victory, not in defeat," McCain told reporters in Virginia.
Obama, who has attacked McCain's trips as glorified photo opportunities, argues the real front of the "war on terror" is Afghanistan and that the U.S. involvement in Iraq has been a diplomatic and financial disaster.
In any case, opinion polls suggest that most Americans are more concerned with the faltering economy than with Iraq as they reel from an epidemic of home foreclosures, job losses and skyrocketing gasoline prices.
Obama drew a link to the war as he outlined his plans to restore U.S. competitiveness with a speech in Flint, in the rusting heart of Michigan's auto industry.
"We could have invested in innovation and rebuilt our crumbling roads and bridges, but instead we've spent hundreds of billions of dollars fighting a war in Iraq that should've never been authorized and never been waged," he said.
Meanwhile, scores of families fled their homes in southern Afghanistan on Tuesday as foreign and Afghan forces prepare to drive out Taliban insurgents who have overrun several villages, officials and witnesses said.
About 600 Taliban insurgents took over several villages in Arghandab district in the south on Monday, days after they had freed hundreds of prisoners, including about 400 militants, after an attack on the main jail in Kandahar city.
"There are hundreds of them (Taliban) with sophisticated weapons. They have blown up several bridges and are planting mines everywhere," Mohammad Usman, a taxi driver who evacuated a family on Tuesday from the district, told reporters in Kandahar.
Ahmad Wali Karzai, the head of Kandahar's provincial council and a brother of President Hamid Karzai, said about 600 Taliban had positioned themselves in Arghandab district, which lies 20 km (12 miles) to the north of Kandahar city, one of Afghanistan's largest cities.
He did not know if the militants included the 400 set free in the jailbreak.
The development prompted NATO and Afghan forces to deploy troops to seal off the area to drive the militants from the district, which has an estimated population of 150,000.
NATO troops have dropped leaflets by air warning people to leave the district, fleeing villagers said.
The defense ministry said several hundred soldiers would be sent from Kabul by air to Kandahar ahead of the operation and put the total number of Afghan forces on the ground to several thousand.