Iraqis can handle resurgent al Qaeda, says DOD

Iraqi national security forces are "prepared to address" al Qaeda's increasingly active terrorist cell in Iraq, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little told reporters on Monday. 

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Those forces under Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki are now in complete control of security operations inside Iraq after U.S. troops pulled out from the country last December. 

Despite that support coming from the Pentagon, Little admitted that al-Maliki's government still faces serious challenges that could further destabilize the country wracked by violence in recent months. 

Little's comments came as government forces in Iraq were dealing with the aftermath of a massive, coordinated attack by insurgent forces across the country. 

Sunni militants set off a string of car bombs and attempted to overrun various military and government installations in 15 different cities across the country on Monday, according to the Associated Press. 

The attacks left at least 160 dead and over 200 wounded, marking the single deadliest day in Iraq since 2010 and provides the latest example of al Qaeda's attempts to exploit the country's weakened security situation since the departure of U.S. forces. 

The most devastating attack took place in Taji, north of Baghdad, where insurgents set off two massive bombs that killed 41 people. 

The second of the two blasts was timed to go off just as Iraqi security forces were arriving to the scene of the first attack, according to the AP. 

While al Qaeda terror cell in the country, known as the Islamic State of Iraq, had yet to claim responsibility for the attacks, its new leader said the strikes were part of a new offensive to reclaim territory lost to U.S. and coalition forces during the war. 

"The majority of the Sunnis in Iraq support al-Qaida and are waiting for its return,” the group's new leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi said in the statement posted on a Islamic militant website.

Prior to Monday's attacks, a slew of connected bombings tore through Baghdad and surrounding area in June, making it the bloodiest month in the country since the U.S. withdrawal. 

A chain of coordinated bombings and attacks on June 16 killed more than 70 people, mostly Iraqi Shi'ites, according to recent reports. Iraq's al Qaeda cell claimed credit for those attacks. 

That month, Stuart Bowen, the Pentagon's Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, told House lawmakers the spike in violence within the country has created a "volatile situation" for American officials. 

"The year began violently in January, [but] March ... saw the least violent month since 2003. So it's a very volatile situation," Bowen told members of the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense and Foreign Operations in June. 

But Peter Verga, chief of staff for DOD's policy undersecretary, told lawmakers during the same hearing that the strategic goals for Iraq laid out by the White House were in reach, despite Bowen's assessment. 

"We are now at a point where the strategic dividends of our efforts are within reach," Verga said. 

"That successful transition enables us to concentrate on building that long-term strategic partnership based on mutual interest and mutual respect," he added at the time.