The ongoing effort to form a new government in Iraq “now has traction,” the Obama administration told Congress Wednesday, with the appointment of a new parliamentary speaker and an emerging consensus to install a federalist system that will give local communities more power and an equitable share of national resources.
Lawmakers on the House Foreign Affairs Committee expressed strong skepticism that current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is willing or able to lead such a transformation, a view that the administration generally shares in private.
But Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brett McGurk, who has been the administration’s point man on the ground in Iraq over the past several months, was reluctant to agree publicly with multiple congressional calls for Maliki to go.
“There is an ongoing process to form a new government. Maliki’s party won about 91 seats” in Iraq’s April election, McGurk said. “You would have to have 165 seats to form a government, and it remains to be seen whether or not that can happen.”
“I would also add that were we to take a position on such a thing, it would obviously not be either in our interests or it would dramatically affect the process.” he said.
Through two four-year terms in office, Maliki’s Shiite-led government has systematically disenfranchised minority Sunnis, a fact the administration acknowledges has lessened their willingness to join the fight against extremists of the Sunni-dominated Islamic State organization that has bulldozed its way to power in much of northern and western Iraq in recent months. In some cases, Sunni tribal groups that once fought extremists with U.S. forces in Iraq have joined the extremists.
Much of the hearing was devoted to congressional criticism that the administration, despite its clear awareness of the Islamist offensive that began in March, had failed to try to prevent it.
In testimony six months ago, panel Chairman Rep. Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.) said, the administration warned that the Islamist group,then known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, “had begun to shift resources from Syria to Iraq in early 2013.”
“The administration testified that it had become aware that ISIS had established armed camps, staging areas and training ground in Iraq’s western desert . . . that ISIS must be, in [the administration’s] words, constantly pressured and their safe havens destroyed.”
Royce insisted — and McGurk denied — that the administration last year rejected Iraq’s “formal requests” for U.S. drone strikes against ISIS camps.
McGurk said that the United States had been providing significant weapons shipments and other assistance to the Baghdad government since January, and that Iraq’s first formal request for air support was only made two months ago.
Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary Elissa Slotkin, who testified with McGurk, said that such strikes would have required more precise information on the ground that is only now becoming available to the United States since President Obama sent several hundred military advisers to Iraq last month.
“The information we have now on these networks is night and day from where it was in May when the request from the Iraqis first came in,” McGurk said. “Therefore, the options that are being developed for the president will be much more concrete and specific than anything we could have had before. And there’s a significant risk, Mr. Chairman, of taking any military action without that level of granularity.”
Rep. Eliot L. Engel of New York, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said that the administration’s failure to provide arms and other assistance to Syrian rebels that began fighting ISIS two years ago had led directly to today’s fight in Iraq.
“The hypotheticals and the what-ifs break my heart because even if we do the right thing now, it will mean small consolation to the orphan child, the grieving mother, or the family in a refugee camp in Syria,” Engel said.
McGurk and Slotkin acknowledged the collapse of four divisions of the Iraqi army in Mosul, the northern Iraqi city first overtaken by ISIS. “We don’t believe it’s that they lacked a basic capability,” Slotkin said. “It’s that at the end of the day, they did not have the will or direction to fight” in that region.
Commanders of the collapsed divisions have been fired, she and McGurk said, and a recently drafted assessment by U.S. forces of Iraqi capabilities is still being reviewed by the Pentagon.
The witnesses declined to comment on recent media reports that the assessment indicated significant infiltration of Iraqi security forces by Sunni extremist informants.