LITTLETON, New Hampshire (Reuters) - Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney on Thursday attacked U.S. President Barack Obama for a “signature failure” to keep some troops in Iraq to prevent the country falling back into sectarian conflict.
Just days after U.S. troops left Iraq, a wave of bombings killed at least 72 people in Baghdad on Thursday. The Shi‘ite-led government is engulfed in a crisis that risks fracturing Iraq along sectarian and ethnic fault lines.
A consistent front-runner in polls of Republicans, Romney said he feared leaving Iraq without a stabilization force could put the hard-earned successes and victories there at risk.
“I hope that risk is not realized. I hope that we’re able to see stability there but the president’s failure to secure an agreement and maintain 10,000 to 30,000 troops in Iraq has to be one of his signature failures,” he told Reuters.
Romney was speaking in an interview on his campaign bus in New Hampshire. The former governor of Massachusetts is among the top two candidates to win the Republican nomination to take on Obama in November, 2012.
In widespread comments on foreign policy, Romney rejected the transfer of Taliban prisoners from the Guantanamo Bay military prison into Afghan government custody as part of a secret dialogue to end the Afghan war.
He also accused Obama’s of falling far short in his handling of the economy despite some signs of strength such as a drop in the unemployment rate to 8.6 percent from 9 percent.
Republicans will use Iraq against Obama in the election campaign if the country descends into violence again after the recent U.S. withdrawal. Thursday’s attacks there are the first sign of rising violence since Shi‘ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki moved to sideline Sunni rivals.
The White House expressed solidarity with Iraq after the bombings. “Attempts such as this to derail Iraq’s continued progress will fail,” spokesman Jay Carney said in a statement.
White House negotiations with Iraq over a follow-on troop presence fell apart over a Pentagon demand that Iraq provide U.S. troops with immunity against prosecution in Iraq for any crimes committed there. Iraq’s government was unwilling to meet that demand, and its political elite were divided over a post-2011 U.S. military presence.
Romney, a multi-millionaire businessman who has little foreign policy experience, showed a fair grasp of global affairs in the interview. Romney was relaxed and casual on his bus with wife Ann and senior aides.
He urged China to exert its influence to help North Korea to move to a more open society and rein in its nuclear arsenal after leader Kim Jong-il’s death.
“China has by far the greatest influence and this is an occasion for China to exert its influence in a way to move towards a more open society, and to encourage the regime to avoid the promotion of nuclear technology to other parts of the world,” Romney said.
“China has to recognize that North Korea’s participation in nuclear proliferation cannot be tolerated forever,” he said.
He continued his drumbeat of criticism of China’s trade policies that the United States says amounts to manipulation of its currency.
“I think China has to recognize that currency manipulation and in particular theft of intellectual property and hacking into computer is something which a society is not going to endure without a response,” he said.
Romney was sharply critical of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is working to regain the presidency over the protests of thousands of Russians who have led peaceful demonstrations.
He said Putin has “returned to some of the more heated rhetoric of the past” and added, “I think he endangers the stability and peacefulness of the globe.”
He commented on a Reuters exclusive story this week that revealed secret talks with the Taliban had focused on the possible transfer of several Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo Bay to Afghan custody.
“I don’t believe in releasing prisoners as part of a terrorist negotiation. And we do not negotiate with terrorists. The Taliban are terrorists, they are our enemy and I do not believe in a prisoner release exchange,” he said.
Reporting by Steve Holland and Jim Gaines; editing by Alistair Bell and Anthony Boadle