AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
As Deborah mentioned, many of those al-Qaida linked militants now fighting in Syria are based in Iraq, specifically in Anbar Province where more than 1,300 U.S. troops died during the Iraq war, many of them fighting al-Qaida. And that's a bitter truth for one of President Obama's fiercest critics, as NPR's David Welna reports.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Senator John McCain is furious about al-Qaida affiliated forces descending on Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, and Fallujah, the city on the Euphrates River where U.S. troops prevailed after fighting two major battles there. The Arizona Republican says those troops are now left wondering whether it was all in vain.
SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: 140-some Americans were killed in the second battle of Fallujah, 600 wounded. Now, we see people driving around Fallujah with black flags. It was a disgrace.
WELNA: McCain contends the total withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq left a vacuum that's being filled by America's enemies. President 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.
MCCAIN: 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.
WELNA: Joining McCain in blasting Obama is a fellow Republican on the Armed Services Committee, South Carolina's Lindsey Graham.
SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: 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. The political process would've continued to move forward.
SENATOR TIM KAINE: They did not want us to stay and under those circumstances we couldn't stay.
WELNA: That's Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine who chairs the Senate Foreign Relation Panel's Middle East subcommittee. Kaine says at a meeting in Bahrain last month he discussed the total pullout of U.S. troops with Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari.
KAINE: What he said was, look, the U.S. offered to keep presence in Iraq and we turned the down and we made a mistake. Now, we regret that.
WELNA: And the Democrat who chairs the Senate Arms Services Committee says American military leaders have assured him they supported withdrawing all troops from Iraq. Michigan's Carl Levin did oppose going to war with Iraq and he says it's probably not the most constructive thing to point fingers now.
SENATOR CARL LEVIN: But since there are a few people who are pointing fingers at Obama, I would just simply say, number one, President Bush is the one set the date for the withdrawal of our forces. That was done during the Bush administration by President Bush sitting with President al-Maliki. Number two, there was nothing said even at that time about a status of forces agreement.
WELNA: In fact, Levin says, it was Obama who tried getting a status of forces agreement in hopes that a residual force could stay in Iraq. 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.
JAY CARNEY: 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. The president doesn't believe that.
WELNA: McCain says he does not want U.S. forces going back to fight in Fallujah.
MCCAIN: Obviously, we were not contemplating our residual force to be in a combat role then. We are not envisioning the United States troops to be in a combat role now.
WELNA: McCain and Graham also have some advice for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Graham says they plan to call him this week.
GRAHAM: 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.
WELNA: Today, Vice President Biden beat them to it, he called Maliki this morning.
David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.