WASHINGTON—A State Department official detailed the chilling threat emerging in Iraq as Islamic militants continue to control large swaths of territory there.
Brett McGurk, deputy assistant secretary for Iraq and Iran, made the comments Wednesday during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on the renewed insurgency in Iraq. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle expressed grave concern over the worsening security situation, and some criticized the Obama administration for not doing more about it.
“What breaks my heart is we lost so much American blood, and now it’s as if we didn’t do anything,” said Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the committee’s ranking member.
On Jan. 3, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) used between 70 and 100 trucks—each flying the black flag of al-Qaeda—to storm the key city of Fallujah, cutting power, killing civilians, and claiming the area as an Islamic state. Iraqi security forces reportedly killed 57 militants on Monday, but government troops have remained unable to regain control of the city.
Although ISIS represents a reconstituted al-Qaeda affiliate, on Monday al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri disassociated his organization from ISIS, saying the group’s tactics are too extreme. McGurk told lawmakers he doesn’t expect the announcement to hurt ISIS and said Baghdad, the capital situated only 42 miles to the east of Fallujah, is next on the hit list. In a rare audio message released Jan. 21, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi urged his fighters to “be on the front lines against the Shia, and march toward Baghdad and the south.” As the hearing got under way, news emerged that four bombs rocked Baghdad on Wednesday morning, killing at least 35 and injuring more than 50.
About 30 to 40 suicide bombings per month are plaguing Iraq. McGurk said the Iraqi government believes its security problem would worsen if Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad falls, but he acknowledged U.S. officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, hold the opposing view. He said Assad’s regime is a “magnet” for attracting foreign fighters to the region.
McGurk, who estimated ISIS has about 2,000 fighters in Iraq, said the close of al-Baghdadi's audio statement should put to rest any doubt that ISIS poses a threat to the United States: “Our last message is to the Americans. Soon we will be in direct confrontation, and the sons of Islam have prepared for such a day. So watch, for we are with you, watching.”
Engel said it would be easy to blame the deteriorating situation on the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq but the situation has more to do with Iraqi politics, including the ineffectiveness of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., an Iraq War veteran, predicted the U.S. withdrawal “will be shown as one of the worst decisions in the recent history of foreign policy” and called on the administration to use air strikes to take out terrorist safe havens.
McGurk said the State Department expects Iraq’s national election, the third full election since the U.S. invasion in 2003, to take place on schedule on April 30. The Iraqi government is making preparations to allow displaced citizens to vote remotely.
Although lawmakers criticized the Maliki government, which they said is too cozy with Iran, McGurk said the prime minister has made “very significant” positive changes since coming to Washington in November for meetings with lawmakers and a two-hour discussion with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office.
Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., raised the condition of Christians in Iraq, which last month landed at No. 4 on the Open Doors list of worst countries in the world for Christian persecution and suppression. Rep. Juan Vargas, D-Calif., also pressed McGurk for answers on why “Christians are being slaughtered” and “the central government is not doing much at all.”
McGurk said the U.S. government is “very focused on the plight of Christians” in Iraq and throughout the region. He said he met with two Iraqi archbishops two months ago, he’s raised the issue with Maliki, and the Iraqi cabinet recently voted on a resolution to carve out a Christian province.
At the start of the hearing, chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., recognized the committee’s Iraq veterans: Reps. Kinzinger, Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), Scott Perry (R-Pa.), Doug Collins (R-Ga.), and Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hi.).