AMMAN, Jordan (AP) -- Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee-in-waiting, mistakenly said Tuesday that Iran was allowing al-Qaida fighters into the country to be trained and returned to Iraq.
McCain, expressing concern about Iran's rising sway in the Mideast, said, "Al-Qaida is going back into Iran and is receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran." He made the comments Tuesday at a news conference in Jordan; he made similar comments earlier to radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt.
Iran is a predominantly Shiite Muslim country and has been at pains to close its borders to al-Qaida fighters of the rival Sunni sect.
Iran has been accused by the United States of funding, training and arming Iraqi Shiite militants in their uprising against the United States. But there have been no allegations by Washington and no evidence that al-Qaida has benefited from Iranian assistance.
After Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut who was traveling with McCain, stepped forward to whisper in the candidate's ear, McCain said: "I'm sorry; the Iranians are training the extremists, not al-Qaida. Not al-Qaida. I'm sorry."
McCain, who has linked his political future to U.S. success in Iraq, had just completed his eighth visit to Iraq. He was in the wartorn country on Monday for meetings with Iraqi and U.S. diplomatic and military officials.
McCain's gaffe immediately drew criticism from the Democratic National Committee, which insisted he must not understand the challenges facing Iraq.
"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," said Democratic National Committee Communications Director Karen Finney.
McCain also voiced similar concern that Tehran is bringing militants over the border into Iran for training before sending them back to fight U.S. troops in Iraq, and he blamed Syria for allegedly continuing to expedite a flow of foreign fighters.
"We continue to be concerned about Iranian influence and assistance to Hezbollah as well as Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons," McCain said.
He added that, if elected president, he would coordinate better with Europe to impose a "broad range of sanctions and punishments" on Tehran, to "convince them that their activities, particularly development of nuclear weapons, is not a beneficial goal to seek."
McCain declined to comment on whether he could back an eventual decision to strike Iran if Tehran doesn't cease its nuclear activities.
In response to a question about possible U.S. strikes against Tehran, McCain only said: "At the end of the day, we cannot afford having a nuclear-armed Iran."
In addition, McCain noted U.S. military officials recently discovered a cache of armor-piercing bombs in Iraq, and he hinted the explosives had been provided by Iran. U.S. officials have long been saying that Iran provides explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs to, Shiite militias in Iraq, although the Iranian government denies any role.
The U.S. military reported two such finds during the past week.
McCain warned that any hasty pullout from Iraq would be a mistake that would favor Iran and al-Qaida.
"We continue to be very concerned about the Iranian influence in Iraq and in the region," McCain said.
McCain ran into trouble last year when he joked about bombing Iran, giving a campaign audience in South Carolina a rendition of the opening lyrics of the Beach Boys rock classic "Barbara Ann," calling the tune "Bomb Iran" and changing the words to "bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, anyway, ah ..."
Later Tuesday, McCain received a celebrity welcome in Jerusalem, beginning a two-day visit to Israel with a stop at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. As his motorcade pulled up dozens of tourists greeted him and chanted "Mac is back," as he shook their hands and posed for photographs.
During his 90-minute visit at the memorial and museum, McCain was visibly moved, his eyes welling with tears as he viewed photographs from Nazi death camps.
Wearing a skullcap placed on his head by Lieberman, McCain laid a wreath in memory of the 6 million Jewish Holocaust victims and lit a memorial flame. Signing the Yad Vashem visitors' book he wrote: "I am deeply moved. Never again. John McCain."
His visit to Iraq was the Arizona senator's first since emerging as the presumed Republican nominee. He was accompanied by Lieberman and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., two of his top supporters in the race for president.
He promised that, if elected president, he would uphold a long-term military commitment in Iraq as long as al-Qaida in Iraq is not defeated.
McCain is a supporter of the 2003 invasion and President Bush's troop increase last year.
Associated Press Writers Dale Gavlak in Amman, Jordan, and Libby Quaid and Steve Hurst in Washington contributed to this report.