U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton just returned from a trip… (Anvar Ilyasov / Associated…)
Reporting from Washington — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Sunday that the U.S. will maintain a strong military interest in Iraq after its last combat troops leave this year, and she warned Iran not to try and take advantage of the pullout.
During a tour of the Sunday morning talk shows, Clinton said that no country, especially Iran, should underestimate the U.S. commitment to Iraq, which American-led forces invaded more than eight years ago to topple autocratic leader Saddam Hussein.
"We have a lot of presence in that region," Clinton said in an interview with CNN's Candy Crowley. "No one, most particularly Iran, should miscalculate about our commitment … to the Iraqis."
The George W. Bush administration's decision to attack Iraq resulted in the overthrow of Hussein's Sunni Arab-led government, and follow-up elections brought power to Iraq's long-suppressed majority Shiite Muslim population. Iraq's Shiite leadership has ties with Shiite-run Iran, whereas Hussein fought a long war with the neighboring nation.
Now, Republicans are questioning whether the departure of the remaining 40,000 U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of the year — after the White House was unable to reach an agreement with Iraq's leaders to allow a small contingent to remain — serves American security interests. They say they are especially concerned given recent threats by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to get involved in the training of Iraqi troops.
Though the U.S. departure announced by President Obama is in keeping with a timeline laid out by the Bush administration, GOP critics say the president is opening the door to Iranian involvement.
The withdrawal is a "serious mistake," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in an interview from Jordan on ABC's "This Week," and is "viewed in the region as a victory for the Iranians."
"Once the military is gone, embassy personnel will be targets," McCain said. "The fact that we have other bases in the region would have very little impact on Iraq itself."
In four TV interviews Sunday, Clinton strongly suggested that the U.S. will maintain a military presence in the region as well as a willingness to respond to any Iranian threat.
The most direct question on the point was from NBC's David Gregory, who asked Clinton whether the U.S. would still have a "military commitment" to keep Iran out of Iraq.
"Iran should look at the region," Clinton said. "We may not be leaving military bases in Iraq, but we have bases elsewhere. We have support and training assets elsewhere. We have a NATO ally in Turkey.... I don't think anyone should be mistaken about America's commitment to the new democracy in Iraq that we have sacrificed so much to help them achieve."