Hearing on Iraq shows extremists strong, Maliki problematic

McClatchy Washington BureauFebruary 5, 2014 


Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, Friday, November 1, 2013.


One of the Obama administration's top Iraq strategists testified today before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on the resurgence of al Qaida in Iraq and what the branch's recent split from the terror group's command means for U.S. interests. 

The hearing ran past the two-hour mark; the HFAC site has the video. Below are some highlights from the back-and-forth between lawmakers and Brett McGurk, deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq and Iran in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.

McGurk, who's served as a special adviser to national security staff and as senior adviser to three U.S. ambassadors to Baghdad, has visited Iraq twice already in 2014. He's working closely with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's administration on ways to address an eruption of violence in western Iraq, where the outcast al Qaida affiliate known as ISIS, for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, is trying to regain a foothold by capitalizing on Sunnis' anger over their marginalization by the Shiite-led government.

At least 1,000 Iraqis were killed in the past month alone, according to news reports. The violence continued today with bombings that left dozens of people dead and more than 120 wounded.

Highlights from today's hearing:

Maliki's leadership

Several lawmakers took aim at Maliki, saying he wasn't doing enough to address Sunni grievances that help ISIS recruit from the disgruntled population of Anbar, the western province that's home to the restive cities of Fallujah and Ramadi.

McGurk said that he's noticed a shift in the past year in the Iraqi government's thinking - from viewing ISIS as solely a security matter instead of as an offshoot of Iraq's sectarian troubles. He said the U.S. was urging Maliki to take a "holistic" approach by working with Anbar tribes that also want to see ISIS out of their territory. McGurk said the U.S. also is accelerating weapons deliveries and consulting closely with Iraqi counterparts on how to rout ISIS.

Details on ISIS

McGurk, citing figures provided by director of national intelligence James Clapper, said an estimated 26,000 extremist fighters were doing battle in Syria, including around 7,000 foreign jihadists. Many of them belong to ISIS, he said.

He deferred to intelligence colleagues on the long-term effects of the al Qaida-ISIS split, but said that so far it seems as though ISIS will remain a "very serious threat" with the ability to "self-sustain" through its hold on oil facilities and through extortion rings in Syria.

In Iraq, McGurk said, ISIS concentrates on attacking Shiites, attacking Sunni areas to eliminate rivals, and attacking Kurds in disputed areas. He said they plot from remote western encampments that even Iraqi special forces couldn't reach. McGurk said the Iraqi government's helicopters were fired upon and their ground forces forced by back by IEDs, the homemade bombs that are favorites of the Iraqi insurgency.

McGurk said the ISIS strategy appears to be to hold on to Fallujah and draw the Iraqi army into a bloody battle in the province, where many U.S. service members and contractors were killed in campaigns to rout insurgents during the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

He called ISIS a "real army," and said that even the anti-ISIS Sunni tribes wouldn't be able to defeat it alone, but would need backup from the Iraqi army. ISIS, McGurk said, is "very well trained and very well fortified."

Overflights from Iran

U.S. officials have been upset with Maliki for not doing more to stop Iranian cargo planes from flying through Iraqi air space to deliver supplies to its ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad. American diplomats have long demanded that the Iraqis force the planes to land for inspection; the flights are a vital supply line for the regime side of Syria's civil war.

McGurk said that there had been progress on the issue, noted that it was "frustrating," and said that, "Iraq is simply not doing enough."

But issue of overflight is one where Iraqi govt hasn't done enough. It's frustrating, "Iraq is simply not doing enough.

Weapons sales competitors

McGurk said that the Iraqis - like the Saudis and Bahrainis - had complained about the slow U.S. process for approving weapons sales to foreign governments. He said that the delay and the urgency of the security situation was causing enterprising arms dealers to pop up in Baghdad with heavy weapons for sale.

McGurk said he didn't want "Iraqis buying Russian hardware," and argued that when the United States sells Iraq an attack helicopter, for example, it's really selling a 30-year relationship that includes pilot training and close military-to-military relations.

Quote of the day

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., certainly gave us plenty to choose from during a long outburst in which he called Maliki a "murderer," the entire U.S.-led war in Iraq a "mistake" and both sides of the Iraq violence "evil." He also said the United States should "let them kill each other."

"Why does the United States feel that we need to be part of this insanity?" he asked.

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