WASHINGTON – As violence and political turmoil tear through a war-wrecked Iraq, military experts are warning Congress that Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist cells are regrouping and working together not only in Iraq but in the entire region to undo a decade of U.S.-led progress.
“We left (Iraq) on the edge of being stable,” Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, a former military intelligence officer, told Fox News.
While saying it's clear the job was "not done," he warned: “Al Qaeda as an entity is coming back strong within the region and is doing things to destabilize governments, which, at this point in time, are still friendly to us."
On Thursday, Iraq’s parliament speaker painted a grim picture of a crumbling country that is taking another beating by terrorists.
"The situation is grave," Osama al-Nujaifi said during a press conference.
Al-Nujaifi believes recent spikes in sectarian violence coupled with political instability are fueling concerns that the country could be pushed into another civil war.
The latest series of orchestrated attacks in Iraq took place Thursday after militants set up their own checkpoints across the country and executed drivers at will. While the killings occurred, a bomb went off inside a crowded café north of Baghdad near the town of Muqdadiyah, killing 16 and injuring 20 others.
Thursday's attacks follow a big prison break Sunday at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison – now under Iraqi government control. At least 250 prisoners who have been linked to terror groups were released and are now back on the streets.
Though the country's economy has actually been gradually improving over the last few years, the attacks in recent months have been frequent and severe, threatening stability. Nearly 2,000 people died in April and May alone. The latest strikes underscored the tenuous security picture in the country 10 years after thousands of American troops were dispatched to Iraq in 2003.
Within five years of the start of the war, concerns that the U.S. was losing control prompted the George W. Bush administration to send 20,000 Marine and Army soldiers into Baghdad as part of a troop surge. Supporters like Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., continue to cite the surge as the turning point in the war, when the U.S. regained ground and the trust of the Iraqi people.
But in recent months, there are signs the country has returned to a state of confusion, distrust and despair. Presently, there are about 100 U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq.
In Washington, lawmakers have started to question whether the hard-fought gains are being eroded by Al Qaeda’s army of terrorists or if there are ways to turn the situation around.
Few in Washington, though, want to see more boots on the ground in Iraq at this point. A leading Democrat told FoxNews.com the insecurity shows the importance of maintaining assistance to the country.
“As the Middle East becomes even more volatile, it is very important for the U.S. and Iraq to remain partners, but our relationship must be a two-way street,” Rep. Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told FoxNews.com. “We can help maintain our influence in Baghdad by providing appropriate assistance to the government of Iraq in its fight against Al Qaeda, which is largely responsible for the spike in sectarian violence.”
The accounts from the violence this week were graphic.
Ahmed Ibrahim, a government employee shopping near the Noufel cafe when he heard the blast, described the gruesome scene to The Associated Press.
"Everybody rushed to the explosion site and saw charred bodies that were thrown outside the cafe because of the powerful explosion," he said. "The scene was horrible."
But even as authorities scrambled to respond to the Noufel location, another bomb was detonated at a second café near the capital city which killed two people and wounded six others.
This was preceded by two prison breaks. Following the Abu Ghraib incident, another 250 or so were freed from a second prison in Baghdad. Twenty guards and 21 prisoners were killed, according to reports.
On Tuesday, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a coalition of Al Qaeda affiliates in Iraq and Syria, claimed responsibility for the incident.
Many argue the Iraqi prison break highlights the U.S. government’s failure to fully stabilize and secure Iraq. Other worry the instability in Iraq will have a direct effect on escalating tensions in neighboring Syria.
In Washington, Republican lawmakers Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas used the developments in Iraq to weigh in on whether President Obama should shut down the Guantanamo Detention Facility in Cuba, which has housed some of the world’s most dangerous terror-linked criminals.
Citing the Abu Ghraib prison break, Cruz said at a hearing this week: "I think that likewise underscores the inherent risk in relying on foreign facilities to detain known terrorists, particularly terrorists for whom there is a substantial risk of their reengaging in terrorism if they find themselves at large."