A U.S. State Department official has highlighted the threat al-Qaida in Iraq poses to the country and its neighbors, as violence in Iraq escalates.
Brett McGurk, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq and Iran, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has significantly increased its attacks in Iraq since early last year.
"Suicide attacks, we assess, are nearly all attributable to ISIL, and nearly all suicide bombers are foreign fighters who enter Iraq through Syria. To give one notable statistic, in November 2012, Iraq saw three suicide attacks throughout the country. In November 2013, it saw 50," said McGurk.
Multiple bombs exploded in Iraq's capital Wednesday, killing at 32 people, while car bombings Thursday left at least five people dead. Violence across Iraq killed 1,000 people last month and nearly 9,000 last year, the highest levels since 2008.
McGurk said al-Qaida in Iraq is attacking predominantly Shi'ite and Kurd areas to stoke sectarian tensions, while also attacking Sunnis to eliminate their rivals and grab territory. He pointed out that the group's leader, believed to be based in Syria, is seeking to control territory from Baghdad to Lebanon
McGurk said the United States is urging Iraqi leaders to develop a security, political and economic strategy to isolate extremists, and is supporting Iraq's military with equipment and training as they try to battle al-Qaida.
President Barack Obama has ruled out the return of U.S. troops to Iraq. The last American forces withdrew in 2011, but U.S. Representative Eliot Engel said Wednesday the United States remains concerned about Iraq's security.
"Direct use of U.S. military force in Iraq is virtually unthinkable at this point. We've withdrawn from Iraq, and we aren't going back. Although we no longer have boots on the ground, however, the U.S. does maintain a stake in Iraq's security, and I believe we should continue to provide appropriate assistance to the Iraqi military in their fight against ISIS," said Engel.
Engel discussed the situation in Iraq's western Anbar province, where last month militants took control of Ramadi and Fallujah. He said the military alone cannot resolve the situation, and that the government must enlist moderate Sunnis to help counter al-Qaida.
Iraqi troops have remained outside the cities, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has called on local tribes to evict the militants themselves.
The State Department's McGurk said Wednesday that Ramadi is increasingly secure, but that the situation in Fallujah is more complicated, with some locals supporting al-Qaida and the militants trying to draw the military into fighting.
"The Iraqi military would have the numbers and the equipment to go into Fallujah tomorrow and clean out the streets. We believe that were they do to an assault like that, that it would actually exacerbate the problem," said McGurk.
He also described the ongoing cycle of sectarian tension in Iraq. Minority Sunnis are seeking reforms from the Shi'ite-dominated government, but McGurk said violence has made it difficult for Shi'ites and Kurds to support the legislation. As a result, he said, al-Qaida is exploiting the divide with more violence that puts the Sunni-sought reforms "further out of reach."
Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce said the fighting in Syria is further strengthening al-Qaida, with militants freely moving between the two countries.
McGurk called Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a "magnet for foreign fighters." He said that as long as Assad remains in power, there will be destructive effects on countries in the region, particularly Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan.