Senior officials at the State Department and Pentagon offered detailed and withering criticisms of the Iraqi government on Wednesday for failing to stop the march of the radical militant group the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, which has captured large swaths of north and central Iraq.
Iraqi leaders repeatedly failed to heed U.S. warnings about ISIS’s threat to the country in early June even as hundreds of ISIS gun trucks carrying fighters and heavy weapons raced over the Iraq-Syria border en route to Mosul, said officials. By that time, ISIS had already captured the towns of Fallujah and Ramadi, but efforts to reinforce other key cities could have halted ISIS’s advance, officials suggested.
The assessment came in testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee by a senior Pentagon official, Elissa Slotkin, and the State Department’s point man on Iraq, Brett McGurk, who just returned from a seven-week trip to the country. McGurk’s trip was designed, in part, to press the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to mount a serious outreach effort to the country’s embittered Sunni and Kurdish minorities or step aside so that a new unity government could take over and lead the fight against ISIS.
Both officials expressed deep frustration at the refusal of Iraq’s military and police units to stand up and defend their own country.
"Anyone who was watching or has been part of our efforts in Iraq was disappointed by what we saw in Mosul," Slotkin said, noting that nearly five brigades dissolved amid the fighting in Iraq’s second-largest city. "Rather than a lack of capability … they lacked the will or direction to fight."
The pointed blame-shifting follows weeks of criticism in Congress that the Obama administration failed to do more to stop ISIS from taking over so much of Iraq.
Last month, ISIS declared the creation of an Islamic caliphate in the large swath of territories it gained in Iraq and Syria. On Wednesday, the terrorist group claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing at a police checkpoint in Baghdad that killed at least 13 civilians and injured 58. Officials in Washington are growing increasingly skeptical that the territory in Iraq lost to ISIS can be easily taken back. Neither lawmakers nor officials addressed whether Washington had provided intelligence to Baghdad prior to the ISIS takeover of Fallujah and Ramadi.
McGurk, who arrived in Iraq on June 7, three days before ISIS militants took over Mosul, described an Iraqi leadership aloof about the urgent threat facing the country. Even as American officials relayed what McGurk insisted was timely information about the hundreds of ISIS fighters flocking from the Iraq-Syria border town of Rabia to the outskirts of Mosul on June 8, Baghdad did little.
"The Iraqi Army agreed to provide assistance to Mosul, but Iraqi commanders did not seem to appreciate the urgency of the situation, and stated that reinforcements might not arrive for a week," said McGurk.
In the days prior to the June 10 takeover of Mosul, the State Department sent an "immediate and urgent" message to the Iraqi acting minister of defense and Maliki’s chief of staff about ISIS’s advances, and the need to reinforce Mosul with nearby Kurdish peshmerga forces. The warning was downplayed, said McGurk. One day before ISIS (also known as ISIL) ransacked Mosul, "the government of Iraq expressed confidence that Mosul was not under a serious threat," said McGurk. "Throughout the day, however, Mosul’s western-most neighborhoods began to fall to ISIL. Its fighters began attacking checkpoints and killing resisters, seeking to establish psychological dominance over Iraqi security units in the city," he added.
One day later, ISIS detonated a suicide truck bomb at a strategic checkpoint east of the city, allowing a free flow of ISIS forces to seize the entire city.
Baghdad officials, for their part, have repeatedly stressed that Iraq needs U.S. air support to combat the terrorist threat posed by ISIS. While some have suggested that Maliki, who has pursued sectarian policies, should step down in exchange for U.S. airstrikes, spokesmen for the prime minister have rejected this solution.
While acknowledging the systemic problems facing Iraq, members of Congress questioned whether the administration could have done more to help the Iraqis earlier on. In particular, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) asked why the United States didn’t move sooner to destroy ISIS camps in Iraq through drone strikes.
"The Iraqi government had been urgently requesting drone strikes against ISIS camps since August 2013," said Royce. "These repeated requests, unfortunately, were turned down."
McGurk shot back, saying Baghdad hadn’t formally requested drone strikes until May of 2014. What is clear is that the Iraqi government began publicly expressing an openness to U.S. drone strikes throughout the summer and fall of 2013, citing the plague of al Qaeda-affiliated insurgents in the country.
McGurk underscored the danger ISIS posed to Iraq and other countries in the region, noting that extortion and smuggling rackets have allowed the terrorist group to generate nearly $12 million a month in revenues. "The situation in Iraq remains extremely serious," said McGurk.
He noted stepped-up efforts to improve intelligence and surveillance coordination with Iraq through the construction of two Joint Operations Centers (JOCs) in Baghdad and Erbil. "These JOCs help ensure a constant 24/7 flow of real-time intelligence information from across Iraq," he said. "We are now able to coordinate closely with Iraqi security forces, the Ministry of Defense, and the Baghdad Operations Center."
McGurk and Slotkin cautioned that there’s no military solution to Iraq’s problems and that a political solution aimed at repairing trust between the Shiite-led government in Baghdad and Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish minorities was the only tenable path forward. Still, the officials failed to provide confidence to lawmakers that Iraq’s leaders were capable of achieving this or that the United States could even play a critical role. "Iraqis must do the heavy lifting," said Slotkin.