Post-war Iraq remained a presidential campaign issue at the January 7, 2012, New Hampshire Republican debate. Texas Governor and nominee hopeful Rick Perry took a swipe at President Barack Obama when he said it was a mistake to remove American troops from Iraq.
U.S. forces left the country before Christmas 2011. Americans had been in the country since invading it in March 2003.
A spate of Sunni-versus-Shiite violence reignited after American troops left. At least 80 Iraqis died and many others suffered wounds in explosions between Christmas 2011 and January 8, 2012.
Former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party tended to keep Sunni-Shiite violence in check. When the American-led coalition toppled Hussein in 2003, however, President Georg W. Bush insisted that Iraq be "de-Ba'athified." Many of Bush's advisers disagreed, citing the destabilizing tendency of the policy. Indeed, religious violence erupted, as did an anti-American insurgency. Bush authorized a "surge" -- or increase in American troops -- to counter the violence in 2007.
Perry Bases Critique On Iran
Perry's criticism, however, was not related to the religious violence, but to his fear that Iran will exploit the violence as a way to extend regional influence in Iraq.
Perry said, "We're going to see Iran, in my opinion, move back in at literally the speed of light. They're going to move back in, and all of the work we've done -- every young man that has lost his life in that country will have been for nothing. Because we've got a president that does not understand what's going on in that region."
In October 2011, Obama announced the formal end of U.S. military involvement in Iraq. The withdrawal became final in December, however many American civilians remain in Iraq.
The withdrawal was not necessarily Obama's idea, but rather the affirmation of a "status of forces" agreement that Bush made with Iraqi officials before he left office in January 2009. Obama and U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta wanted to leave a small cadre of troops to help Iraqi forces transition to their own defense. Iraq opted for the original agreement.
Perry jabbed at Obama, suggesting the president could have "renegotiated" the agreement. Perry went further, saying as president he would send troops back to Iraq.
Meanwhile, Panetta told Sunday talk-show viewers that American military forces are keeping watch on Iran. His comments were in part to counter Iran's recent boasts that it close the Strait of Hormuz if the U.S. interfered with its naval war-games. It also announced more war-games for the area in February 2012, and made the same threat.
Panetta was also reassuring Americans and their allies that recently announced military budget cuts would not hinder U.S. capability to counter Iran. In 2011, Congress mandated across-the-board federal budget trimming. Obama and Panetta envision $487 billion in Pentagon cuts over the next decade.
Panetta did not specifically address Perry's contention, but he made it clear the U.S. would not let Iran destabilize the region. He also looked forward to Obama's style of international, multilateral foreign policy to help check Iran.
"We have common cause here," said Panetta. "We're not interested in [Iran] developing a nuclear weapon. We are not interested in them proliferating violence throughout that region. We are not interested in them trying to assist in terrorism. We are not interested in them trying to destabilize governments in that region or any place else," he said.
McCain: Too Late
Arizona Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential candidate, disagreed with Perry. While he did not think Obama should remove all U.S. troops from Iraq, he said the U.S. could not now reinsert troops into the country.
McCain has endorsed Perry's rival, Mitt Romney, who is the current Republican front-runner for the presidential nomination.