US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, right, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said the policies of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki have contributed to the uprising across the country. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s two top officials had harsh words for the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki Wednesday morning, saying Maliki has alienated and repressed his country’s Sunni population, resulting in the chaos spreading in the northern and western parts of the nation.
Testifying before the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed that two Iraqi divisions and one national police organization “did in fact throw down their arms and in some cases collude with [radical Islamic fighters] because they had simply lost faith that the central government in Iraq was dealing with the entire population in a fair and equitable way.”
Pressed by senators as to why the United States failed to do enough to stop the flow of fighters from Syria into Iraq, Dempsey said that “very little could have been done to overcome the degree to which the government of Iraq has failed its people, that’s what has caused this problem.”
On a day where reports have emerged that Iraq’s largest oil facility at Baiji, 130 miles north of Baghdad, fell to the fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Dempsey confirmed that Iraq has requested American airstrikes to try and blunt the advance of the group and its local Sunni allies.
When pressed by Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham, S.C., as to whether ISIL is a threat to the mainland United States, Dempsey said, “it is in our national security interests to counter ISIL wherever we find them,” and that while the current US assessment is that the group is a regional threat, “they have aspirations” to hit American interests outside of Iraq.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel echoed Dempsey’s assessment of the Maliki government, saying, “this current government in Iraq has never fulfilled the commitments it made to form a unity government with the Kurds, the Sunnis and the Shia. We have worked hard with them within the confines of our ability to do that but we can’t dictate to them.”
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Calif., told the officials that in a recent meeting with Lukman Faily, Iraqi ambassador to the US, he estimated that the Baghdad government is facing off against about 20,000 fighters, with 10,000 coming from ISIL and 10,000 from local Iraqi Sunni tribes, plus other smaller groups of foreign fighters.
Dempsey replied that the Pentagon thinks the Iraqi ambassador’s estimates are high, and the “ISIL is almost undistinguishable right now from the other groups you mentioned. In this cauldron of northern Iraq you have former Baathists, groups that have been disenfranchised and angry with the government in Baghdad for some time, and as ISIL has come they’ve partnered [with them.]”
US intelligence assessments believe these partnerships are “a partnership of convenience and there’s probably an opportunity to separate them, but that’s why the numbers are a little heard to pin down.”
In non-Iraq related news at what was supposed to be a budget hearing, Hagel said the White House’s overseas contingency operations (OCO) budget request for 2015 would be “substantially smaller” than the $79.4 billion allocated for 2014.
The request has been delayed as the Obama administration debated how many troops to keep in Afghanistan after the end of this year.
Now that the White House has committed to 9,800 troops for 2015, the administration is finishing up its numbers.
Hagel also told the committee that the 2015 OCO request will include the $5 billion Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund that the president announced at his West Point speech in May, along with an additional $1 billion in military assistance to reassure allies in Europe. ■