Possible Iraq Action Requires Clearer Picture, US Military Leaders say

US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel talks with US Sen. Susan Collins shortly before testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee in Washington DC, June 18, 2014, on the Defense Department’s fiscal year 2015 budget request. Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Robert Hale, Defense Department comptroller, who arrived with Hagel, also testified

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Washington, DC – The Iraqi government has requested US airstrikes to help it put down a fast-moving rebellion by Sunni insurgents, but the Defense Department’s top civilian and military leaders told senators today that a clearer picture of the situation on the ground — as well as clear objectives — are necessary for airstrikes or other military intervention to be effective.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, answered questions at a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee.

Five days after President Barack Obama said he had asked his national security team for a range of options for helping the Iraqi government thwart the rapid Sunni insurgent sweep through much of the country’s north and west, posing the threat of reprisals from Shiites, Dempsey said that while he shares alarm over the situation, he could recommend military force only “once I’m assured we can use it responsibility and effectively.”

Various indistinguishable forces are on the ground in northern Iraq, he said, from the insurgents who threaten Baghdad — known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, and also as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL — as well as former Baathists and other disenfranchised groups.

“Until we can actually clarify this intelligence picture, the options will continue to be built and developed and refined and the intelligence picture made more accurate, and then the president can make a decision,” Dempsey said. “It’s not as easy as looking at an iPhone video of a convoy and then immediately striking.”

A number of lawmakers, as well as former military officials have called for airstrikes against the Sunni insurgents, who have taken over Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and other towns on their rapid push southward toward Baghdad. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called on his Shiite supporters to rise to the country’s defense, threatening a return of the full-blown sectarian conflict experienced in 2006 to 2008.

Hagel told lawmakers the Pentagon is providing the president with different options, but that any US military intervention in Iraq, including airstrikes, would require clear objectives.

“There has to be a reason for those,” he said. “There has to be an objective. Where do you go with those? What does it do to move the effort down the road for a political solution?”

As long as Maliki continues to lead a Shiite-based sectarian government to the exclusion of other groups, “the entire enterprise is at risk,” Dempsey said. Obama has conditioned any US military assistance to Baghdad on a fresh effort to resolve differences among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds that he, along with Hagel and Dempsey, have said laid the foundation for the current crisis.

Last week, two divisions of the Iraqi army and one national police organization collapsed as the Syria-based insurgents quickly routed towns along the route to the Iraqi capital.

“They did that because they had simply lost faith that the central government in Iraq was dealing with the entire population in a fair, equitable way that provided hope for all of them,” said Dempsey, who led the US effort to train Iraqi security forces from 2005 to 2007.

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