Iraq 'unraveling' amid renewed sectarian violence, say Sens. McCain, Graham

Iraq is once again teetering on the brink of chaos as sectarian tensions rise, according to Senate hawks who visited the government and opposition groups last week.

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) have long been critical of the administration's failure to reach an agreement with Iraqi authorities to leave a residual U.S. force in the country after 2011. They returned from a joint trip to Iraq on Sunday, just as an Iraqi court sentenced Vice President Tariq al Hashemi, a Sunni opposition leader who has sought refuge in Turkey, to death on terrorism charges.

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“I've never been more depressed,” Graham told The Hill.

Opposition groups “are all disappointed with the lack of engagement by the administration,” he said. “I'm telling you that's where it's headed: Without a political resolution to the process, Kirkuk and other flashpoints like that are really ripe for violence.”

McCain had the same takeaway.

“It was all predictable when Obama announced that he was proud we were leaving,” McCain told The Hill. “Because of his failure, we didn't leave a residual force there and of course the whole thing is unraveling, as many of us predicted. And the tragedy is we wasted so many American lives.”

Their comments come as Turkey on Tuesday rejected Iraqi demands that it turn over Hashemi. More than 100 people were killed throughout the country Sunday following the verdict in one of Iraq's deadliest days this year. On Monday, Hashemi exhorted his followers to peacefully resist the government of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.

“My people, don't give Maliki and those who stand behind him the chance,” Hashemi said, according to Reuters. “People should not stay silent on the unprecedented oppression in Iraq.”

The Obama administration has raised concerns about Hashemi's sentence.

“We are concerned about the potential for an increase in unhelpful rhetoric and tension on all sides, and we call on all of Iraq’s leaders to continue to try to resolve their disputes consistent with the rule of law and in a manner that’s going to strengthen Iraq’s long-term security, unity, and commitment to democracy,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday. “I would simply add that our understanding is that under Iraqi law, there is an opportunity for Mr. Hashemi to appeal this. We will, obviously, monitor this case and see what happens.”

The Obama campaign has sought to portray the U.S. withdrawal as a success, with the president himself touting it during his acceptance speech in Charlotte.

“You know, in a world of new threats and new challenges, you can choose leadership that has been tested and proven,” Obama said. “Four years ago I promised to end the war in Iraq. We did.”

Graham said Iraq was “on the right glide path” before Obama abruptly ended the unpopular war.

He said opposition leaders he met with described a “complete stalemate.” They cited no progress on the political process, a long-stalled oil law and rising insecurity fueled in part by the conflict in neighboring Syria and the resurgence of al Qaeda, Graham said.

“No one trusts anybody. They accuse Maliki of centralizing power and basically becoming a dictator,” Graham said. “We've lost our leverage (due) to lack of troops, creating all sorts of instability.”

Regardless of the facts on the ground, the violence in Iraq is unlikely to hurt Obama much in November: some two-thirds of likely voters — 67 percent — think the Iraq war was not worth fighting, according to the 2012 Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey released Monday.