WASHINGTON — Senators challenged the nation’s top military leaders Wednesday over the recent chaos in Iraq, asking how Iraqi troops could be fleeing their posts after the United States spent billions training and equipping them.
At a Senate hearing ostensibly on the Pentagon’s 2015 budget, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey said for the first time that the Iraqi government has requested U.S. air strikes against Islamist militants who have swept through parts of the country in less than a week.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel contradicted recent statements by his aides when he appeared to confirm reports that hundreds of Revolutionary Guard troops from neighboring Shiite-dominated Iran have entered Iraq to counter the Sunni extremists’ offensive.
“Iran is on the ground, Secretary Hagel, in Iraq,” Sen. Lindsey Graham told the Pentagon chief.
“Iran has been in Iraq for many years,” Hagel said, apparently referring to its funding of Shiite militias in the war-torn country that the United States invaded in March 2003.
Graham and other senators reluctantly agreed that the United States might need to seek the aid of Iran, a longtime enemy Washington accuses of sponsoring terrorism, in easing the crisis in Iraq, where the United States in recent days has evacuated some of its Baghdad embassy staff.
“For god's sakes, I'll talk to anybody to help our people from being captured or killed,” Graham said. “And this is a time where the Iranians in a small way might help. Given their behavior, I know exactly who they are. They're not repentant people at all. They're thugs and killers, but we are where we are.”
Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, said she was dismayed to see how little resistance the militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, known as ISIS, have met in seizing territory and equipment on their offensive through Mosul, Tikrit and surrounding areas north of Baghdad.
“We provided $15 billion _ I don't need to tell you, and I'm well aware of your role _ in training and aid to the Iraqi forces,” she said. “And then when I saw so many of them cut and run against ISIS...it's just appalling and very disappointing.”
Hagel said he and other Pentagon leaders were blindsided by the recent collapse of Iraqi troops.
“We did not anticipate this,” he told the Senate Defense appropriations subcommittee. “We were surprised that the Iraqi divisions...just threw down their weapons.”
Dempsey confirmed the Iraqi government’s request for U.S. air support when Graham asked whether it can defeat the radical Islamists without it.
“Do you think it’s in our national security interests to honor that request?” Graham asked.
The South Carolina Republican is a military lawyer and an Air Force Reserve colonel who served multiple short stints in Iraq.
Dempsey hedged his answer.
“It is in our national security interest to counter (ISIS) wherever we find them,” said the four-star Army general who helped train Iraqi forces from 2005 to 2007.
Dempsey and Hagel noted that President Barack Obama has ruled out a renewed U.S. combat role in Iraq and said they are providing him with other military and non-military options.
“Isn’t it a little late?” Sen. Dan Coats, an Illinois Republican, asked Dempsey. “The territory has already been lost. The cities have already been taken.”
During a conference call reporters following the hearing, former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad blamed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki for much of the current crisis.
Khalilzad said Maliki, a Shiite Muslim, has increasingly ignored many of the provisions in the 2005 Iraq Constitution for power-sharing with Sunnis, Kurds and regional leaders, while consolidating control in his central government.
Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, also placed responsibility with the Maliki government.
“I will concede political ineptitude when it came to the leadership of Iraq,” Durbin said at the hearing. “Some of the decisions made by Mr. Maliki were disastrous and divided his country instead of unifying it and building it for the future.”
Hagel said: “This current government in Iraq has never fulfilled the commitments it made to bring a unity government together with the Sunnis, the Kurds, and the Shia.”
Khalilzad, who was the top U.S. envoy to Baghdad from 2005 to 2007, said the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops, which ended in December 2011, also contributed to the recent upheaval.
“Our role was to influence the (different) parties to cooperate, to mediate, to come up with ideas when there were problems,” he said. “Our withdrawal and increased disengagement led to a vacuum that was filled by regional rivals supporting different groups contributing to polarization inside Iraq, and the Syrian war has also contributed.”
ISIS members are fighting in both Iraq and Syria, controlling large swaths of a cross-border territory the size of Jordan.
Graham warned the Pentagon leaders that a similar fate awaits Afghanistan if Obama follows through on his plan to withdraw U.S. combat troops from there by the end of 2016, two years later than he’d originally proposed. Dempsey reluctantly agreed that in the absence of U.S forces, ethnic and sectarian divisions could tear apart Afghanistan as they are doing in Iraq.
“I can’t completely convince either myself or you to think that the risk is zero that that couldn’t happen in Afghanistan,” Dempsey said.
Hagel, though, said there is reason to hold out more hope for Afghanistan.
“The Afghans are better fighters _ far more tenacious fighters _ than their Iraqi counterparts,” he told the senators.
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