Gunmen patrol during clashes with Iraqi security forces in Fallujah, on Jan. 5, 2014. Al-Qaida has been battling to take back both Ramadi and Fallujah in Anbar province in Iraq.
Gunmen patrol during clashes with Iraqi security forces in Fallujah, on Jan. 5, 2014. Al-Qaida has been battling to take back both Ramadi and Fallujah in Anbar province in Iraq. AP
Forces allied with al-Qaida are battling to retake two major cities in Iraq's Sunni-dominated Anbar province: Ramadi, the capital of the province, and Fallujah, the city where U.S. troops prevailed after fighting two major battles.
There have been no American forces in Iraq since 2011, when President Obama ordered the last troops to leave. Now the man who lost the presidential race to Obama five years ago is pointing a finger at the president for al-Qaida's resurgence.
Some 1,300 U.S. troops died in the area during the Iraq War, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) says the troops that fought there are now left wondering whether it was all in vain.
"Americans were killed in the second battle of Fallujah, 600 wounded, now we see people driving around Fallujah with black flags," McCain says. "It's a disgrace."
McCain contends the total withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq left a vacuum that's being filled by America's enemies. Obama removed the troops after failing to get a status of forces agreement signed with Iraq that would prevent American service members from being tried in Iraqi courts. McCain says he's spoken with top Iraqi officials about just who did not want to sign that agreement.
Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain say President Obama's total withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq is to blame for the surge in violence for al-Qaida there.
Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain say President Obama's total withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq is to blame for the surge in violence for al-Qaida there. Brendan Smialowski/AP
"I know what they said to us, they were ready to sign, and Obama did not want to stay in Iraq, and that's what it was all about," he says.
Joining McCain in blasting Obama is South Carolina's Lindsey Graham, a fellow Republican on the Armed Services Committee.
"If we'd had a residual force of 10- to 12,000, I am totally convinced there would not have been a rise of al-Qaida," Graham says. "The political process would've continued to move forward."
Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine disagrees.
"They did not want us to stay, and under those circumstances, we couldn't stay," Kaine says. Kaine, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Middle East subcommittee, says at a meeting in Bahrain last month, he discussed the total pullout of U.S. troops with Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari.
"What he said was ... 'the U.S. offered to keep presence in Iraq and we turned them down, and we made a mistake. Now we regret that,' " he says.
Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, says American military leaders have assured him they supported withdrawing all troops from Iraq. Levin did oppose going to war there, and he says it's probably not the most constructive thing to point fingers now. But since people are pointing fingers at Obama, he would like to remind people that the date for withdrawal was set during the Bush administration.
"That was done ... by President Bush, sitting with President Maliki," Levin says. "There was nothing said, even at that time, about a status of forces agreement."
In fact, Levin says, it was Obama who tried getting an agreement in hopes that a residual force could stay behind. At the White House earlier this week, spokesman Jay Carney wondered aloud just what the president's critics might want, beyond the Hellfire missiles and surveillance drones that are being sent to Iraq.
"I don't think I've heard members of Congress suggest this, but if members were suggesting that there should be American troops fighting and dying in Fallujah today, they should say so," Carney said. "The president doesn't believe that."
McCain says he does not want U.S. forces going back to fight in Fallujah.
"Obviously we were not contemplating our residual force to be in a combat role then," he says. "We are not envisioning United States troops to be in a combat role now."
McCain and Graham also have some advice for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom they plan to call this week.
"And here's the message: You need to be an Iraqi leader, you need to prove to the world you're not a sectarian leader, this is a defining moment for you as an individual. You need to unleash the Iraqi army in support of the Sunni tribal leaders, and we will stand behind you," Graham says.
Vice President Joe Biden beat them to it; he called Maliki on Wednesday morning.