Escalating Iraq violence not a result of U.S. force withdrawal, says White House

1 / 40

A masked Sunni Muslim gunman takes position with his weapon during clashes with Iraqi security forces outside the city of Falluja, 70 km (44 miles) west of Baghdad, January 19, 2014. Iraqi Sunni Muslim tribesmen backed by police special forces and helicopter gunships attacked al Qaeda-linked militants in the nearby city of Ramadi on Sunday, but halted the assault after at least eight of their number were killed, police and health officials said. There was no word on casualties among the militants. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, an al Qaeda offshoot also fighting in Syria, and its local allies overran parts of Ramadi, as well as Falluja, on January 1 after security forces broke up a Sunni protest camp near Ramadi and arrested an outspoken Sunni lawmaker. REUTERS/Stringer (IRAQ - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS CONFLICT)

A masked Sunni Muslim gunman takes position with his weapon during clashes with Iraqi security forces outside Falluja

The White House pushed back hard on Monday against allegations that the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq is partly to blame for a surge in deadly sectarian violence there.

“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,” spokesman Jay Carney told reporters. “The president doesn't believe that.”

Al-Qaida-linked extremists have escalated attacks in Iraq and captured two cities in Anbar province, Ramadi and Fallujah, sites of some of the bloodiest battles U.S. troops waged in the aftermath of the March 2003 invasion to topple Saddam Hussein.

Over the weekend, Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham blamed Obama’s decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011 for making that possible.

“While many Iraqis are responsible for this strategic disaster, the Administration cannot escape its share of the blame,” they said in a joint statement. “Many of us predicted that the vacuum would be filled by America's enemies and would emerge as a threat to U.S. national security interests. Sadly, that reality is now clearer than ever.”

Obama hoped to leave a residual force of some 10,000 American troops in Iraq, but withdrew all U.S. forces after Iraq’s government refused to grant them immunity from local prosecution.

“There was sectarian conflict, violent sectarian conflict in Iraq when there were 150,000 U.S. troops on the ground there,” Carney said. “So the idea that this would not be happening if there were 10,000 troops in Iraq I think bears scrutiny.”

Still, the spokesman said, Obama wants to leave a residual force in Afghanistan after most troops leave by the end of 2014, in order to train Afghan security forces and carry out counterterrorism operations.

But Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s refusal to sign a bilateral security agreement (BSA) that would allow that has put that goal in jeopardy.

“As each day passes, it becomes harder to plan with our NATO allies for a post-2014 mission because we can't do that without a BSA that's signed after it's been negotiated,” Carney said.

At least 7,818 civilians and 1,050 members of security forces were killed in violent attacks across Iraq in 2013, according to U.N. figures. More than 759 people were killed in December. The toll is the highest in five years, but still far below 2006 and 2007 sectarian conflicts.