- The Washington Times - Monday, July 23, 2012

The United States on Monday stood by its hands-off policy toward Iraq after more than 100 Iraqis died in a wave of 37 coordinated terrorist attacks across the country — the most intense assault since American forces left seven months ago.

The attacks came a day after al Qaeda threatened to launch a new blitz of violence, although no group claimed credit for the rash of suicide bombings and assaults on vehicle checkpoints, a military base and the homes of police officers in 15 Iraqi cities.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the Iraqi government chose to provide for its own defense when it refused to allow U.S. troops to stay in Iraq unless the Americans forces were subject to Iraqi criminal law.

“We made clear a year ago that we were open to a number of options,” Ms. Nuland said. “They picked the option that we are in, which is that they maintain security with advice and support as necessary.”

She added that the United States provides equipment and training to Iraqi forces and stands ready to provide additional support if requested.

Ms. Nuland denounced the bombings as “cowardly” and “particularly reprehensible during this holy month of Ramadan.”

The attacks, which wounded several hundred Iraqis, were launched on the third day of Ramadan, and they follow what has been a steady pattern of terrorist bombings that have plagued Iraq since the pullout of U.S. forces in December.

Analysts were quick to point the finger at Sunni Islamists operating under the banner of al Qaeda in Iraq after an audio message posted on the group’s website Sunday promised new attacks to regain strongholds where U.S. troops drove them out.

In a previous Internet posting, the group’s leader, Abu Bakir al Baghdadi, asserted that the majority of Iraq’s Sunni population “support al Qaeda and are waiting for its return.” The statement was apparently designed to underscore high tension that exists between the nation's Shiite-dominated government and Sunni political factions.

Anthony Cordesman, the leading Middle East analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, described the attacks as “part of a pattern that has come from al Qaeda hard-line Sunni jihadists directed not toward the United States but at trying to split Iraq along sectarian lines.”

The violence has so far not succeeded in exploiting political divisions between Sunnis and Shiites in power, said Mr. Cordesman, who added that the attacks are more just “a sign that Iraq is still a violent country.”

His remarks echoed those of Hakim al-Zamili, a Shiite member of Iraqi parliament’s security and defense committee, who told reporters in Iraq that “al Qaeda is trying to send a message that it is still strong and can choose the time and places to attack.”

The extent to which the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq opened a window for such attacks to escalate remains a topic of debate in Washington.

“When the withdrawal was in full force, many people thought this meant the U.S. was handing things over to Iran,” said Joshua Foust, a fellow at the American Security Project, a nonpartisan think tank.

“But what we’re now seeing is that this is actually al Qaeda,” he said. “That points to a much deeper complexity.”

President Obama had widespread support for ending the U.S. military occupation of Iraq. But the hastiness with which the withdrawal ultimately occurred, along with full relinquishment of any serious U.S. military role going forward, drew fire from Republicans last year.

Among those most critical was former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, who claimed election-year politics had driven Mr. Obama into abandoning the Iraq mission in favor of winning over anti-war voters.

“President Obama’s astonishing failure to secure an orderly transition in Iraq has unnecessarily put at risk the victories that were won through the blood and sacrifice of thousands of American men and women,” Mr. Romney said after Mr. Obama’s announcement in October that U.S. troops would be gone from Iraq by the end of 2011.

His campaign did not immediately respond to requests for an updated comment Monday.

Mr. Cordesman expected little to change in U.S. policy toward Iraq, “especially in an election year.”

“This is not an area where American domestic politics lend themselves to meaningful intervention,” he said.

Mr. Foust added: “Beyond expressing condolences, I don’t think there’s a lot the United States could or should do in response to bombings. But we could provide humanitarian assistance to victims, and we could help the Iraqi government coordinate a response.”