Washington (CNN) – Republican Sen. John McCain said Sunday it was a mistake to pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq, but would not back comments from GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry about sending American servicemen back to the country.
In response to a statement by Perry during a primary debate Saturday, McCain told CNN, "the moment and window of opportunity [to keep troops in Iraq] has now been closed."
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McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, endorsed rival candidate Mitt Romney on Wednesday, and campaigned for the former Massachusetts governor in South Carolina and New Hampshire later in the week.
At the ABC News GOP debate Saturday, Perry said he would "send troops back into Iraq."
"I think we start talking with the Iraqi individuals there, the idea that we allow the Iranians to come back in to Iraq and take over that country, with all of the treasure, both in blood and money that we have spent in Iraq, because this president wants to kowtow to his liberal leftist base," the Texas governor said.
Reacting to Perry's comments Sunday, McCain said it is too late to go back into the country, but he added the departure was a mistake in the first place.
"The level of violence is increasing and basically their government is not functioning and we are seeing a significant increase in Iranian influence in the country," the Arizona senator said. "So there is a very serious situation which could have been avoided if we had kept a residual force of some 20,000 people there - which the president refused to seriously negotiate about."
The status of the U.S. forces agreement with Iraq, originally negotiated under former President George W. Bush, set a deadline for U.S. troop withdrawal by December 31, 2011.
A recent CNN/ORC poll showed that nearly eight in 10 Americans support ending the war in Iraq. Seventy-eight percent of adults surveyed were in favor of removing all U.S. combat troops, while 21% said troops should remain.
McCain, who serves as ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said America should have kept a residual force in Iraq because not having troops in the country "does pose a greater threat to the security of the American civilians."