WASHINGTON – Senior U.S. officials and lawmakers butted heads Wednesday over the American response to Iraq’s expanding Sunni insurgency, with Republicans saying drone strikes should have been authorized months ago and even Democrats questioning the Obama administration’s commitment to holding the fractured country together.
Testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the State Department’s Brett McGurk and Defense Department’s Elissa Slotkin said the administration was focused on improving U.S. intelligence, securing American personnel and property, guiding Iraq toward a new, more inclusive government and helping its forces strike back against the al-Qaida offshoot that has seized much of the country.
The U.S. is now conducting about 50 intelligence sorties over Iraq a day, they said, from about one flight a month a few months ago. Both stressed they saw no military solution to patching up Iraq’s political and ethnic divisions or to peeling off moderate Sunnis from the insurgency that calls itself the Islamic State. Republicans and Democrats accepted that point, but questioned why the administration wasn’t doing more.
Rep. Ed Royce of California, the Republican chairman, recalled a hearing six months ago when U.S. officials said the extremists must be “constantly pressured and their safe havens destroyed” so that they “never again gain safe haven in western Iraq.” Yet since that time, the insurgents seized vast swaths of territory and a series of towns and cities, including Mosul.
“What the administration did not say was that the Iraqi government had been urgently requesting drone strikes against ISIS camps since August 2013,” Royce said. “These repeated requests, unfortunately, were turned down.”
McGurk, who spent the last seven weeks in Baghdad, said Iraqi drone requests hadn’t been rejected because they were still being studied, an answer that prompted derision from Royce. McGurk also suggested Iraqi requests have sometimes been informal and contradictory.
Pressed by lawmakers, McGurk refused to say Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki should step aside. He said Iraq made political progress with the appointment last week of a new parliament speaker and was moving toward choosing a new president and forming a new government.