Suggested Questions for Hill Hearings on Iraq’s Terrorism Crisis

July 22, 2014

Both the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee will hear testimony this week from Brett McGurk, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran, and Elissa Slotkin, who is performing the duties of the Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, on America’s response to the growing terrorism crisis in Iraq.
It is vital that the Obama administration clearly explain what is at stake in this conflict and how it plans to prevent either Iraq’s collapse or the permanent establishment of a terrorist safe haven that stretches across the heart of the Arab world.  Leading lawmakers, such as Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa (D-HI), have expressed their concern that the Obama administration “has no strategy” to confront the advances of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL), a terrorist movement that is an offshoot of al Qaeda in Iraq.  The Daily Beast’s Eli Lake recently reported that the White House ignored many warnings of the terror movement’s resurgence since November 2013.
U.S. policymakers and lawmakers should waste no time in crafting a proactive response to ISIS’s dangerous advance.  In reaction to arguments to take an isolationist approach in Iraq by Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) and others, Governor Rick Perry (R-TX) recently warned in the Washington Post:  “Ignoring the growth of the ISIS and events in Syria and Iraq will only ensure that the problem will fester and grow.  The United States needs to take seriously the threat this presents to our nation.”  As Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) also argued:  “In addition to the threat to the U.S. homeland, we also need to be concerned that if Iraq begins to fragment, the resulting chaos and instability will ripple throughout the region.”
The Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) hopes that the following questions will help lawmakers and their staffers prepare for these important hearings.

On ISIS’s Threat to the United States
(1) In his February 2014 testimony before the House Foreign Affairs committee, Brett McGurk underscored the threat that ISIS poses to the United States by quoting a January 21st message from ISIS’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi:  “Soon we will be in direct confrontation, and the sons of Islam have prepared for such a day.”

  • Given ISIS’s advances in recent weeks, as well as Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s remarks that ISIS posed an “imminent” threat to the United States, how would you now describe the nature and intensity of the threat that the group poses to the United States, Iraq, and our allies in the Middle East?

(2) McGurk also told Congress in February that ISIS aims “to carve out an Islamic caliphate stretching from Baghdad to Lebanon.”

  • Can you detail the threat ISIS now poses to Jordan, Lebanon, and other nearby countries?
  • Can you detail the total size of ISIS’s forces—both in Syria and Iraq—and how it has gained control of so large a stretch of territory?  Does the wide distribution of the group’s forces suggest that they are vulnerable to a counter-offensive?

On U.S. and Iraqi Strategy to Counter ISIS
(3) Mr. McGurk said in March 2014 that the “United States has encouraged the Government of Iraq to develop a holistic strategy to isolate ISIL from the population,” adding:  “This requires a combination of political, security, economic, and cultural measures—focused on mobilizing the population from the bottom-up to protect local communities and force terrorist groups into non-populated areas where they can be captured and killed.”

  • What is the Iraqi government’s strategy to combat this threat?  To what extent is it meeting or failing to meet the requirements that were described in March 2014?
  • What is U.S. strategy towards Iraq today?  What further authorities from Congress, if any, does the Executive Branch require to fully implement that strategy?
  • What actions must the Iraqi government take immediately and in the near future to fully implement this strategy?  What actions will the United States take to ensure that it follows through on its commitments to Iraq?

(4) General Martin Dempsey said on July 3, 2014 that that the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) are “capable of defending Baghdad, [but] that they would be challenged to go on the offense.”  He added the Iraqis would likely require assistance to recapture territory from ISIS.

  • Can you detail the Defense Department’s understanding of the assessments that U.S. military teams have made of the ISF’s capability?
  • Can you further detail what role the United State will play in helping Iraq to defeat ISIS?  Does the Obama administration anticipate sending more special operations forces or intelligence operatives to Iraq soon?  Does it likewise anticipate that U.S. air and naval assets will support this counter-offensive?

(5) In recent years, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki replaced many competent commanders in the Iraqi Security Forces with incompetent political loyalists, many of whom later contributed to the military’s collapse from Fallujah to Mosul.

  • How will the Obama administration encourage the Iraqi government to rebuild the ISF around a professional and proficient officer corps?
  • What role can the United States play in that effort?  What further authorities from Congress, if any, does the Executive Branch require to successfully advance that effort?

On the Relationship between ISIS and Iraqi Sunnis
(6) As Mr. McGurk testified in February, ISIS’s rise was aided by the Shiite-led Iraqi government’s failures to respond the grievances of the Sunni community, to end de-Ba’athification, to ensure due process for detainees, and to advance greater power sharing in the national government.

  • Can you describe in detail the past and present relationship between ISIS and Iraqi Sunnis, particularly with the former “Anbar Awakening” groups?  How much support does ISIS truly have among Iraq’s Sunni community?
  • Can you detail how ISIS has treated the populations in areas under its control?  Do you believe that the group may alienate the Iraqi people to such a degree that they rebel against the extremist group, akin to the “Anbar Awakening”?

On Iraqi Government Formation
(7) The political situation in Iraq remains tense.  Though the Iraqi Council of Representatives elected a new speaker last week, negotiations remain deadlocked on choosing a new prime minister.  This is due to the fact that, as Charles Duelfer and former Iraqi Ambassador to the United States Samir Sumaidaie recently wrote in the Washington Post, “Iran has vetoed all Shiite nominees to the prime minister’s post who are remotely acceptable to Sunnis or secular Shiites.”

  • Do you believe that the primary Shiite parties in the Iraqi Council of Representatives will choose a prime minister who will incorporate and empower the Kurds and Sunnis in the Iraqi government?
  • To what extent would a third term for Prime Minister Maliki further alienate Iraqi Kurds and Sunnis and contribute to the deterioration of the Iraqi state?

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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