WASHINGTON — Republican candidates for the White House slammed President Barack Obama on Sunday over the US troop withdrawal from Iraq, warning of greater Iranian clout and violence in the strife-torn country.
"People do not understand how much the Iranians have penetrated Iraq, and that the vacuum we've created will lead to, I think, a very, very unstable and very unpleasant environment in Iraq," former House speaker Newt Gingrich, the current frontrunner for the party's nomination, told CBS television.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, Gingrich's chief rival for the party's nod to take on Obama in November 2012 elections, warned on "Fox News Sunday" that the troop withdrawal was "precipitous."
"I think we're going to find that this president, by not putting in place a status of forces agreement with the Iraqi leadership, has pulled our troops out in a precipitous way and we should have left 10-, 20-, 30-thousand personnel there to help transition to the Iraqi's own military capabilities," he said.
"I'm very concerned in this setting. I hope it works out."
The attacks, coming just two weeks before the heartland state of Iowa holds the first Republican nominating contest, seemed to put Obama's critics at odds with a war-weary US public that opposes the war by a two-to-one margin.
"Republicans won't get anywhere if they criticize him for pulling the troops out too fast. The American people are war-weary. That is an understatement," John Feehery, an erstwhile spokesman for former House speaker Dennis Hastert, said on his blog, thefeeherytheory.com.
But Republican primary voters have shown a hunger for a candidate who will take the fight to the embattled Democratic president, whose drive for a second four-year term hinges on perceptions of his handling of the sour US economy.
The Democratic National Committee -- effectively a political arm of the White House -- charged that Romney had "no clear plan" for Iraq and would leave US forces there "indefinitely."
Republicans have noted that the withdrawal, called for under a 2008 accord signed by Obama's Republican predecessor George W. Bush, came after Baghdad and Washington failed to reach a deal allowing a smaller US force to say on.
US military commanders had hoped the residual force would train and support Iraq's fledgling force, but Iraqi political leaders balked at granting US troops legal immunity, a diplomatic impasse Republicans have blamed on Obama.
Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, a former ambassador to China and the Republican candidate with the strongest foreign policy credentials, took aim at Obama over the breakdown in the talks.
"President Obama's inability to reach a security agreement in Iraq is a product of the administration's failures in the region," said Huntsman spokesman Tim Miller.
"Governor Huntsman would have supported an agreement that left a small troop presence that could have assisted with the training of Iraqi security forces and vital counter-terror efforts."
The criticisms came after the last US troops crossed out of Iraq into Kuwait nearly nine years after the March 2003 US invasion to topple dictator Saddam Hussein and hunt for weapons of mass destruction that were never found.
The US public at first split on the war, largely along party lines, then swung sharply against it as claims of Hussein's secret arsenal proved wrong and casualties mounted -- ultimately fueling Obama's historic 2008 White House run.
At last count, the conflict claimed the lives of some 4,474 US troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis, with a financial cost of nearly $1 trillion to the US Treasury.
Recent US public opinion polls have found Americans fearful that Iraq could tip into civil war but deeply pessimistic that a longer US force presence would serve US national security interests and determined to see US troops come home.
"I think we're going to find, to our great sadness, that we've lost several thousand young Americans, and had many thousand more wounded, undertaking a project that we couldn't do," said Gingrich.
© AFP 2013