Republican senators on Tuesday denounced the Obama administration's decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of the year, saying the White House risks "losing the peace" in the fragile Middle East nation.
The withdrawal "represents a failure of leadership, both Iraqi and American," said Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, which heard testimony from the Pentagon's top leaders on the Iraq decision.
"It was a sad case of political expediency supplanting military necessity," Mr. McCain said.
He charged the administration wanted all along to withdraw completely, despite the risks to security both in Iraq and the volatile Middle East region as a whole.
"I fear that we won the war in Iraq, and we're now losing the peace," said Mr. McCain, who supported the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
Sen. Lindsay Graham, South Carolina Republican, suggested domestic political considerations played a part in the Oct. 21 decision to withdraw all 24,000 U.S. troops. He questioned whether President Obama was trying to keep a campaign promise to pull out of Iraq.
Other senators raised concerns about the security of 16,000 civilian U.S. staff and military contractors who will remain in Iraq after the pullout. They expressed worries about Iranian dissidents in a compound north of Baghdad that Iraq wants to close by Dec. 31. The senators also questioned the growing Iranian influence over the Iraqi government.
In a series of sometimes testy exchanges with GOP committee members, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, defended the withdrawal. They insisted the Obama administration had no other choice but to pull out in accord with the 2008 agreement with the Iraqis signed by then-President George W. Bush.
Gen. Dempsey said that Baghdad had refused to grant immunity from prosecution to U.S. forces.
"It was the recommendation, advice and strong belief of the Joint Chiefs that we would not leave servicemen and women there without [legal] protections," he said.
The failure of negotiations with Baghdad over retaining American troops there left the U.S. government with no choice but to pull out its forces, added Mr. Panetta.
"This is about negotiating with a sovereign country, an independent country," he told Mr. McCain, "This was about their needs. This is not about us telling them ... what they're going to have to do."
Republicans argued the Obama administration failed to give the Iraqis a clear answer about how many troops the United States wanted to leave behind and what their mission would be.
"The truth is that this administration was committed to the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, and they made it happen," Mr. McCain said.
"Sen. McCain, that's just simply not true," replied Mr. Panetta.
"Your version of history and mine are very different," Mr. McCain shot back.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, New Hampshire Republican, said she is concerned about the 16,000 State Department staff and contractors, including thousands of private security forces, who would remain in the country next year after the departure of U.S. troops.
"Will they be secure?" she asked Mr. Panetta. "Can you assure this committee that the State Department will be able to perform this unprecedented task?"
The situation could be "a disaster waiting to happen," she warned.
Mr. Graham and committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, asked about the fate of 3,400 Iranian dissidents in Camp Ashraf. U.S. forces disarmed the Iranian resistance force in 2003.
Iraqi forces have attacked the camp's residents several times, and the Iraqi government is threatening to evict them by they end of the year.
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