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US Senator Casts Doubt on Arms Sales to Iraq

FILE - Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez.
FILE - Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez.
Michael Bowman

A powerful U.S. lawmaker says he will block American arms sales to Iraq unless he is satisfied weaponry dispatched will not fall into the hands of radical Islamic insurgents that have overrun large swaths of Iraqi territory.  Senators of both parties pressed administration officials for information about the current state of Iraq’s beleaguered security forces at a hearing Thursday.

The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democrat Robert Menendez, says Iraq’s military has failed on the battlefield, despite years of intensive U.S. training.

“They deserted the communities they were responsible for protecting, abandoned U.S. military equipment, and fled from ISIS fighters," Menendez said.

Absent assurances of bolstered Iraqi military capabilities, Menendez said he would oppose further U.S. arms sales to Baghdad.

“This chair is not going to be willing to approve more arms sales so they can be abandoned to go into the hands of those we are seriously concerned about in terms of our national security interests," he said.

The Pentagon has completed an initial assessment of Iraqi security forces, but has yet to provide conclusions or recommendations to members of Congress.  Thursday, a Pentagon spokesman said the focus of the review effort “is on accuracy and detail as opposed to speed.”

When pressed by senators at Thursday’s hearing, the Defense Department’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Security Affairs, Elissa Slotkin, painted a mixed picture of Iraq’s military.

“There are some very capable units that have high morale and are willing and capable of fighting, and there are others units where morale is lower, where there may not be as much capability and willingness to actually fight," said Slotkin.

Senators of both parties blamed Iraq’s fragmented, sectarian-focused leadership for chaos and unrest in the country, and said the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant must be contained. 

The State Department’s Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran, Brett McGurk, described ISIL as "a full-blown army" and "worse than al-Qaida" - with a potential reach far beyond the Middle East.

“ISIL is able to funnel 30 to 50 suicide bombers a month into Iraq.  We assess these are almost all foreign fighters" he said. "It would be very easy for ISIL to decide to funnel that cadre of dedicated suicide bombers - global jihadists - into other capitals around the region, or Europe, or, worse, here [in the United States]."

Earlier in the day, Iraq’s parliament picked a new president, Kurdish politician Fouad Massoum, but has yet to choose a prime minister.  The Defense Department’s Elissa Slotkin said a new government will have to appeal to Iraq’s restive Sunni population in order to combat ISIL’s influence.  She did not downplay the importance of security forces, but said what Iraq needs most is a “political compromise” in Baghdad.

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