The Obama administration's decision to completely withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq was "the right decision," even as violence in the country has escalated dramatically in the years after the American pullout, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Friday.
Since the last American units rolled out of Iraq in 2011, sectarian violence fueled by a resurgent al Qaeda in the country "has clearly escalated," resulting in hundreds of Iraqi civilians wounded or dead, Carney told reporters.
"It is a fact now that al Qaeda has a presence in western Iraq [and extending into Syria] that Iraqi forces are unable to target," the official said.
Iraqi Prime Minster Nouri al-Maliki met with Obama on Friday to discuss possible U.S. military and counterterrorism assistance to help Baghdad beat back ISIS within its borders.
The White House and Pentagon failed to reach a bilateral security deal with Baghdad that would allow a handful of American troops to remain in the country after the U.S. pullout
That lack of a deal prevented Washington from fielding a postwar force in Iraq after the final withdrawal.
White House critics claim President Obama's decision against leaving a residual U.S. military force in Iraq after 2011 essentially laid the groundwork for al Qaeda's return to the country and the devastating terrorist attacks that accompanied its return.
"Since the Obama Administration’s hasty withdrawal in 2011, the gains [in Iraq] have been unraveled," House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon said in a statement Friday.
"Al-Qaeda in Iraq is growing as a transnational threat ... and Iran is maintaining its influence with the Maliki government. And yet, the administration still does not have a comprehensive policy to address these issues," according to the California Republican.
But Carney fired back against such claims, arguing that even a sizable U.S. postwar force in Iraq would not have been enough to keep al Qaeda elements at bay.
"The decision to fully withdraw from Iraq was one made by the [Iraqis] and the United States ... and it was the right decision," Carney said.
"Anyone who believes that the presence of U.S. troops ... in perpetuity is the answer to solving Iraq's political challenges, I think is just simply wrong," he added.
The lack of a postwar force, Carney added, was not any indication that Washington is not willing or able to provide the kind of security assistance being sought by the al-Maliki government.
"The President was committed to ending the war in Iraq, and he has fulfilled that commitment. That doesn't mean that we don't have an intense and focused relationship with Iraq going forward," he said.
That assistance will likely include shipments of F-16 warplanes, M1 Abrams tanks and possibly unmanned surveillance drones, backed by American training and intelligence support.
That said, Congress is skeptical about giving more aid to Iraq, saying that al-Maliki’s “mismanagement of Iraqi politics is contributing to the recent surge of violence.”
“If Prime Minister al-Maliki continues to marginalize the Kurds, alienate many Shia, and treat large numbers of Sunnis as terrorists, no amount of security assistance will be able to bring stability and security to Iraq,” a group of six leading senators on defense issues wrote to Obama this week.
The senators, including John McCain (R-Ariz.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), did encourage the administration to step up counterterrorism support for Iraq.
For his part, Carney said "Iraq has to resolve the challenges that face Iraq" and with assistance from the United States and other regional allies, the White House is confident those challenges can be overcome.
"It's not alone in those kinds of struggles. And I think Iraqis would be the first to tell you it's an imperfect democracy, to say the least. But it's important that Iraq make progress ... through elections and through conciliation and not through violence," he said.