Republican lawmakers Thursday blamed the Obama administration for the stunning resurgence of Iraq’s al-Qaeda franchise and called on the White House to take assertive steps to help Baghdad beat back militant uprisings in the country’s west.
The charges, which elicited a sharp response from the White House, thrust Iraq policy back into the forefront of U.S. politics after years during which the lengthy war and its brutal aftermath have been largely noncontroversial and unmentioned in Washington.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) called on President Obama to “get engaged” in Iraq, citing the fierce fighting in cities in Anbar province, where cells of al-Qaeda militants have secured footholds in recent days.
“The administration has chosen to spend much of its time and energy trying to explain why having terrorists holding key terrain in the Middle East is not the president’s problem,” Boehner told reporters at his weekly news conference.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the Obama administration remains deeply invested in Iraq’s success and called the speaker’s accusation off base.
“Maybe he thinks that American men and women in uniform ought to be fighting today in Anbar province,” Carney said. “The president made a commitment to end the war in Iraq. He fulfilled that commitment.”
Boehner said he does not support sending U.S. troops to Iraq now, but wants to see the administration move more quickly in delivering military assistance.
Carney said Vice President Biden has consulted regularly with senior Iraqi leaders on the situation in Anbar and continues to explore ways to help the government and those in the province who are fighting the militants. The cities where the fighting is unfolding gained deep significance for the U.S. military, which lost hundreds of troops in a years-long effort to drive al-Qaeda militants from Anbar province. Restoring security in the province was the crowning achievement of the 2007 troop surge.
The security situation in Iraq has worsened over the past year as a protest movement spawned by a crackdown on Sunni politicians by the Shiite-led government has turned violent. Violence has also intensified in Baghdad and northern Iraq as a reconfigured al-Qaeda franchise that is also operating in neighboring Syria has carried out an intense wave of bombings.
The latest came Thursday when a suicide bomber targeted a military recruiting center in Baghdad, killing 21 people, according to the Associated Press.
Worried about the rise of militants, the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has asked the U.S. government for weapons and other forms of military aid. The requests have been met with reluctance on Capitol Hill, where some lawmakers fear they would enable an authoritarian and sectarian government.
Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) delivered blistering criticism of the administration’s Iraq policy on the Senate floor Thursday morning, arguing that the White House didn’t try hard enough to negotiate a security pact that would have kept a few thousand U.S. troops in Iraq. Such a contingent would have allowed Washington to keep significant leverage in the country and continue to carry out counterterrorism operations there, they said.
“The return of al-Qaeda to Anbar is a sobering reminder to the administration that the tide of war is not receding,” McCain said.
He said the ongoing carnage and political upheaval in Iraq represents an inexcusable outcome for the families of service members who were killed and maimed there.
“What do we tell these young people and their families?” McCain exclaimed. “We have to tell them that their sacrifice was squandered by an administration that wanted to get out.”
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, noted in a statement that it was the Bush administration that set the end of 2011 as the deadline to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq.
He said the administration should support the Iraqi government, which has requested expedited shipment of attack helicopters and other heavy weapons, but not without guarantees.
“The issue here is not whether such aircraft would help Iraq fight violent extremism — they would,” he said. “The question is whether the Maliki government would use them only against violent extremists . . . and not to further sectarian political objectives.”
Adding to worries about how additional U.S. military aid could be used, Human Rights Watch said Thursday it was concerned by reports of indiscriminate shelling by Iraqi security forces in Ramadi.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), an Air Force pilot who served in Iraq, said in an interview Thursday that the Obama administration should move aggressively to aid Iraq’s security forces. He advocated the deployment of U.S. aircraft to help the Iraqis find targets.
Kinzinger conceded that members of both parties have been irresponsibly disengaged on Iraq since the U.S. withdrawal.
“If I start talking about Iraq, people’s eyes glaze over,” he said. “I think Americans are weary. But we are in a moment now where if we fail to do the right thing, we could make it far worse.”
Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.