By Tabassum Zakaria and Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. intelligence agencies warned that security gains in Iraq could degenerate into sectarian violence after a troop pullout that some officials say left the United States with little leverage in a country it occupied for nearly nine years.
A wave of bombings that killed at least 72 people in Baghdad on Thursday provided further evidence of a deteriorating security situation just days after the last U.S. troops left Iraq.
"This should be a surprise to no one that this is happening," said House of Representatives intelligence committee chairman Mike Rogers.
"Most people believed, the assessments that were coming out believed, that the sudden rapid withdrawal with no troop presence on the ground was going to leave this vacuum that would be filled with the kind of problems that you're seeing," Rogers, a Republican, said in an interview with Reuters.
Rogers said the troop pullout reduced U.S. influence and that a chaotic Iraq plays into Iran's desire for increased influence in that region.
"There was plenty of advice and counsel and analytical product that said this was a bad idea and here's what's going to happen if you do it," he said. "We see the beginnings of what was predicted was going to happen."
Potential sectarian strife poses a political and policy challenge for President Barack Obama's administration, which ended the troop presence that began with the 2003 U.S.-led invasion ordered by then-President George W. Bush.
In an interview with Reuters, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney attacked Obama on Thursday for what Romney termed a "signature failure" to keep some troops in Iraq to prevent it falling back into sectarian conflict.
It was Bush, however, who agreed in his last months in office to the end-of-2011 deadline for a U.S. troop withdrawal.
The Obama administration's 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 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.
Addressing the intelligence reports, a senior administration official said: "That there were sectarian divisions in Iraq before we invaded, and will likely be sectarian conflicts after U.S. forces left, is a fairly obvious point."
"However, those differences are now being solved through politics, through dialogue. Our embassy is helping work through those differences. A residual troop presence would have no role," added the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"The intelligence community has also assessed that Iraqi security forces are fully capable of providing internal stability."
The official said it was important to distinguish between U.S. government predictions of attacks by al Qaeda in Iraq aimed at sinking the power-sharing deal and political tensions between the country's leaders.
Responding to the Baghdad bombings, White House press secretary Jay Carney said on Thursday they would not derail "Iraq's continued progress."
One day after the U.S. military completed its troop withdrawal on Sunday, the Shi'ite-led Iraqi government announced an arrest warrant against Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, the country's highest-ranking Sunni politician.
That action threatened the already fragile power-sharing arrangement among the Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish sects that had tried to overcome years of sometimes deadly rivalry.
Initial U.S. assessments are that Thursday's bombings in Baghdad were the work of Sunni militants, possibly enraged by the accusations against Hashemi.
Another senior U.S. official said Iraq had been through political crises before and could survive this one too.
"We have seen many crises in the political system, including the country going without a government for almost a year in 2010 and the political actors, the same political actors as we have now, have been able to resolve this," he said. "So from that standpoint, we are optimistic."
"On the other hand, the Middle East is in a different situation since the beginning of 2011 and we have to understand that," he said. "One of our goals is to ensure that Iraq stays as much shielded from these regional winds as possible but ... really impossible to do that fully."
STAYING IN TOUCH
U.S. officials are trying to stay engaged in Iraq. Vice President Joe Biden spoke with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani to support efforts to calm sectarian violence.
CIA Director David Petraeus, the former top military commander there, was visiting Iraq to meet senior leaders in a trip planned before the current outbreak of violence, another U.S. official said.
Over the past year as the Obama administration prepared for the withdrawal of troops, the intelligence community has examined potential political problems in Iraq, especially the fault lines between Sunnis and Shi'ites and between Arabs and Kurds and the potential for instability, a U.S. official said.
Two senior U.S. officials said military and civilian intelligence agencies, including the CIA, issued many analyses warning Obama and his top policy advisers that once American forces left the country, security could deteriorate and violence between Sunni and Shi'ite communities could erupt.
Rogers said he still believes it was a mistake to fully withdraw troops from Iraq because the combat operation had already effectively wound down and the military was saying "don't take us down to zero right now, it will leave a vacuum."
One of the senior officials said top officers of the U.S. Central Command, which oversaw U.S. military operations in Iraq, were "very vocal" in warning policymakers that violent sectarian conflict could break out in Iraq after the last U.S. troops left. It was a "fairly constant theme" of intelligence assessments from the region, the official said.
The official noted, however, that nobody predicted specifically that this would happen within a day or two of the departure of the last American combat troops.
The main tool the United States has now in Iraq is diplomatic pressure but even that has been watered down with the lack of troop presence, Rogers said.
"Diplomatically we are certainly in a point of weakness in Iraq" because many political factions at the national and local level believe the United States has abandoned them, he said.
"I'm not optimistic about what kind of leverage we can apply here that would make significant difference for the better," he said. "Diplomatic pressure is always best served from a position of strength."
(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed, Phil Stewart, Steve Holland and Jim Gaines)