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.
Iraq's parliament postponed its presidential day by a day Wednesday. The next president will task someone with establishing a government, though that may end up being al-Maliki yet again. His bloc won the most seats in April parliamentary elections and he has brushed aside calls for him to allow a successor after eight years as prime minister. His critics accused him of monopolizing power and alienating minority Sunnis and Kurds.
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Amid all the internal strife, Iraq's Kurds have pushed into disputed territory including the oil-rich area of Kirkuk and moved closer to a decades-old dream of independence. The U.S. has been trying to keep Iraq whole. Democrats and Republicans wondered why.
Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the top Democrat on the panel, questioned why the Kurds as a distinct people aren't entitled to the same rights of self-determination the Palestinians enjoy. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California, a Republican, said the United States shouldn't be limited by Iraqi borders drawn up by the British Empire a century ago. He suggested an independent Kurdistan and a sovereign Baluchistan ought to be considered.
The Defense Department's Slotkin said a strong, capable government in Baghdad - and not an Iraq divided into smaller countries - posed the best defense against the extremist insurgency. She implied that what lawmakers proposed might mean the abandonment of territories currently controlled by the Islamic State. "Who's in charge of that western and north part of Iraq in that model?" she asked.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on CBS' "Face the Nation" earlier this month that U.S. officials have warned the next major attack on U.S. soil could emanate from Iraq.
"The seeds of 9/11s are being planted all over Iraq and Syria," Graham said. "They want an Islamic caliphate that runs through Syria and Iraq...and they plan to drive us out of the Mideast by attacking us here at home."
Robert Zarate, a policy director at the nonprofit Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), told CBS News that he's confident lawmakers on Capitol Hill are taking the conflict seriously, even as other international hotspots compete for their attention.
"It's basically al-Qaeda-stan," he said, explaining how ISIS has spread "like a cancer" in both Iraq and Syria. While the U.S. has sent forces to Iraq, it should also work on repairing its relationships with sectarian leaders like the Sunni chieftans, Zarate said -- groups that have lost trust in Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
"One element of stabilizing what's happening is having a central government in Baghdad viewed as legitimate," he added.