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Clinton and Trump clash over Middle East policy and Putin in final debate

Trump has pledged close the door to Syrian refugees, describing them as a 'Trojan horse' for terrorism
Trump repeatedly cited Syria as an example of Clinton’s foreign policy failures and national security weaknesses (AFP)

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton faced off in the last of their three televised debates in a caustic presidential race on Wednesday, making familiar pitches to the Republican and Democratic bases in a final drive for votes.

Trump - perhaps the most controversial presidential candidate in half a century - entered the 90-minute political slugfest in Las Vegas with his campaign in serious trouble.

The 70-year-old Manhattan real estate mogul is behind Clinton in the national polls and is trailing the Democrat in key swing states and only battling for parity in states such as Arizona that have been solidly Republican in the past.

In recent weeks Trump has been exposed making sexually predatory remarks as well as being accused of groping a number of women, of not paying any income taxes and of being in league with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In what has often been a toxic campaign, the two White House hopefuls got off to a subdued and oddly substantive start to the debate, moderated by Fox News journalist Chris Wallace.

Early in the debate, Trump repeatedly cited Syria to point to what he sees as Clinton’s foreign policy and national security weaknesses.

Clinton warned that Moscow was rooting for Trump in the 8 November poll because he would be Putin's "puppet."

In an angry exchange, Trump said he would enjoy Putin's respect, while Clinton declared: "That's because he would rather have a puppet as president of the United States."

Asked by Clinton about his confessed admiration for Putin, Trump said it would be good to have a rapport with Moscow.

“Putin has outsmarted her and Obama at every step of the way,” Trump said, particularly in Syria, and he pointed to the Middle East as evidence for Washington’s failure in the rivalry with Moscow.

In a discussion on immigration, the Republican nominee said Clinton wanted open borders.

"People are going to be pouring in, people are going to come from Syria. We're going to stop radical Islamic terrorism," he said, referring to the refugee resettlement programme.

Trump has pledged to stop accepting refugees from Syria, describing them as a “Trojan horse” for terrorism.

Also in the debate, Trump criticised Clinton for spawning IS while she was secretary of state.

“She gave us ISIS because she and Obama created a huge vacuum,” Trump said, referring to the US withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq under Obama’s command. “Now they’re in 32 countries,” he said.

The GOP nominee questioned Clinton’s ability to defeat the militant group. “She’s going to defeat nothing,” he said.

Clinton said she was "encouraged" by the recent offensive by the Iraqi army, supported by the Kurdish forces, to retake Mosul from IS. While she praised the role of US special forces advising and training Iraqi troops, she said: "I will not support putting American troops on the ground as an occupying force."

She said US boots on the ground would only bolster IS.

Clinton reiterated her proposal for a no-fly zone over Syria, which she said would serve as a safe haven for civilians. "A no-fly zone could save lives and could hasten the end of the conflict," she said.

She said the safe areas would give Americans leverage to pressure Russia and President Bashar al-Assad's government in Damascus to end the conflict and "go forward on a political track".

She also said the no-fly zone would not lead to confrontation with the Russians because she would make it clear it was to safeguard civilians.

Trump called the Obama administration "stupid" for announcing the Mosul offensive, saying that all IS leaders have fled the city.

He also said that the push to recapture Mosul is politically timed. "She's running for president, and they want to look good, they wanted to look tough," he said.

He added that Iran will be the biggest winner if Iraqi forces capture Mosul. "Mosul is going to be a wonderful thing, and Iran should write us a letter saying thank you."

Trump's comments may have been noted in Tehran where Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, appeared to be paying attention to the debate, earlier tweeting concern about both candidates' lack of spirituality and their future custody of the country's stockpile of nuclear weapons.

Trump went on to blame Barack Obama for the situation in Aleppo, Syria's second city. "Aleppo is a disaster; it is a humanitarian nightmare ... It is so sad if you see what happened," Trump said.

He said Syrian Assad turned out to be much tougher than Clinton and Obama expected. "We're backing rebels. We don't know who the rebels are ... if they ever end up overthrowing Assad - as bad as Assad is - you may end up with something that's much worse than Assad," he said.

Clinton now leads by more than six points in an average of national polls compiled by RealClearPolitics. Many pundits have declared the presidential race all but over. But Trump has shown a willingness to climb over bodies to emerge on top.

The provocative billionaire has attacked leaders of his own party and obliterated the normal rules of political decorum. Nothing, it seems, is out of bounds. He has prompted anger and concern by questioning the legitimacy of the election.

Women especially have thrown their support behind the 68-year-old former secretary of state who is poised to become the first female president in American history.

A Quinnipiac University poll showed she is scoring heavily with women leading Trump by 52 percent to 38 percent among female voters.