(CNSNews.com) – Amid ongoing Republican criticism over President Obama’s decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of the year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has taken the lead in defending the move, while warning Iran not to underestimate the U.S. commitment to Iraq’s ongoing stability.
In a series of television interviews on Sunday, Clinton – traveling in Central Asia – noted repeatedly that it was President Bush who set the timetable in motion with the status of forces agreement negotiated with Baghdad in 2008.
She cautioned Iran in particular not to “miscalculate” the ongoing U.S. commitment to Iraq, pointing out that while the U.S. will not have military bases in Iraq beyond Dec. 31 it does have a military presence elsewhere in the region.
“In addition to a very significant diplomatic presence in Iraq, which will carry much of the responsibility for dealing with an independent, sovereign, democratic Iraq, we have bases in neighboring countries,” she told CNN’s State of the Union.
“We have our NATO ally in Turkey, we have a lot of presence in that region. So no one, most particularly Iran, should miscalculate about our continuing commitment to and with the Iraqis going forward.”
U.S. troop strength in Iraq currently stands at around 39,000, down from a high of some 170,000 during the 2007 troop “surge.”
Obama said Friday all remaining troops would be home by the end of the year, adding that the U.S. and Iraqi governments “will continue discussions on how we might help Iraq train and equip its forces.”
Notwithstanding the Dec. 31 deadline in the 2008 status of forces agreement, the two governments in recent months had been discussing the possibility of retaining some U.S. troops beyond that date.
The New York Times reported in September that U.S. commander in Iraq Gen. Lloyd Austin had proposed keeping 14,000-18,000 troops in Iraq next year, while Fox News reported that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had signed off on a plan for a considerably smaller deployment of 3,000.
The Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq (OSC-I), which came under the authority of U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey on Oct. 1, is envisaged to have 157 military and civilian personnel as full-time staff, along with foreign military sales specialists on a case-specific basis.
Speaking during a visit to Tajikistan on Saturday, Clinton said she expected there would be “about 1,700 Americans in Iraq, committed to our ongoing political, diplomatic, economic, and security partnership. And we expect to have appropriate security for all those Americans who are serving.”
Asked twice during the CNN interview how many troops would be deployed, Clinton gave no figures, but said that the training and equipping mission would be “in addition to the usual Marine contingent, the defense attaché, and other normal relations between our diplomats and our Department of Defense representatives.”
Republican reaction to Obama’s announcement has focused on the likelihood of a return to sectarian violence and instability, with Iran – which has been strengthening its relationship with Baghdad ahead of the withdrawal – seen as the primary beneficiary.
GOP presidential candidate Texas Gov. Rick Perry accused Obama of “putting political expediency ahead of sound military and security judgment,” while his rival, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, said “the unavoidable question is whether this decision is the result of a naked political calculation or simply sheer ineptitude in negotiations with the Iraqi government.”
Herman Cain, also running for president, said in Iowa Saturday that “Iran is just sitting back and waiting for us to leave and then they’re going to go back in and they’re going to try to control the whole country.”
“They’re dancing in the streets in Tehran,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told Fox News Sunday, while Sen. John McCain of Arizona, ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement, “I am confident that no U.S. commander of any stature who has served in Iraq recommended the course of action that has now been taken.”
Speaking on Fox News Sunday, Clinton took aim at the critics.
“The point of our involvement in Iraq, stated over and over again by people on both sides of the aisle, was to create the opportunity for the Iraqis to have their own future without the oppression of a dictator like Saddam Hussein,” she said.
“Now you can’t on the one hand, say you’re all for democracy and sovereignty and independence, where people get to make their own choices, and on the other hand say that when a choice is made that is foreseen by our own government – going back to the Bush administration and validated by the Obama administration and the current government in Iraq – that that somehow is not appropriate.”
Theories abound as to the reasons why attempts to secure an agreement over keeping some forces in Iraq next year failed, but experts generally agree that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was unable to get the necessary support from major blocs in parliament for a sensitive politically issue.
Complicating the negotiations were the question of U.S. immunities and legal protections for troops, as well as demands by Maliki’s coalition partners for unrelated concessions.
Leading opposition to retaining U.S. troops in Iraq was the Iranian-backed Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who warned last August that any American troops remaining in that country beyond year’s end would be regarded as occupiers and targeted.
Sadr’s movement is a partner in Maliki’s national unity coalition, with seven cabinet posts and 40 seats in the 325-member parliament.
On Sunday, Sadr’s office posted on its Web site a statement in which Sadr made clear that U.S. troops to be based at the embassy after the end of the year would also be considered “occupiers” and would be resisted.
McCain, who is traveling in Jordan, said on ABC’s This Week that Obama’s withdrawal plan was being “viewed in the region as a victory for the Iranians.”
“In my view, this can lead to Iranian influence in Iraq through Sadr – and Maliki, I think, is leaning more and more towards alliances with Iran,” he added.