Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs Brett McGurk testifies before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday on Capitol Hill. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
The U.S. is still considering a request from the Iraqi government for airstrikes against Sunni militants in Iraq, a senior State Department official told lawmakers.
The Islamic State, a group inspired by al-Qaida, has taken over a large swath of northern Iraq since June 10, when Iraqi troops and police officers in Mosul were routed by a much smaller enemy force. The group also controls territory in western Iraq and eastern Syria.
In May, the Iraqi government asked the U.S. to launch airstrikes against the Islamic State, but at the time, the U.S. did not have enough intelligence to do so, said Brett McGurk, deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq and Iran.
“It was very difficult for us to know specifically what was happening,” McGurk told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday. “It was very difficult for us to know the extent of [the Islamic State’s] advance southward down the Tigris River Valley, which is why in a ... meeting with the president in the earliest hours of this crisis, the decision was made immediately to significantly surge U.S. air assets over the skies of Iraq, again, to go from one [flight] a month to 50 a day, including manned aircraft.”
The U.S. now has much better intelligence on the Islamic State, which will help inform President Obama as he decides whether to take military action against the militants, McGurk said.
“The options that are being developed for the president will be much more concrete and specific than anything we could have had before,” he said. “There’s a significant risk ... of taking any military action without that level of granularity.”
Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., asked McGurk why the Obama administration turned down the Iraqi government’s request for airstrikes in May.
McGurk said that was not the case, and in fact the request “is still under active consideration. There’s never been a denial.”
However, the Iraqi ambassador to the U.S. recently called for immediate airstrikes against the Islamic State, which was formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Speaking at the Atlantic Council on July 21, Lukman Faily urged the U.S. “to conduct counter-terrorism operations in urban areas occupied by ISIL ... we need precision U.S. air attacks,” and added: “The U.S. should offer air support targeting terrorist camps and supply convoys in remote areas.”
A total of 825 U.S. troops are now on the ground in Iraq, Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren said on Thursday.
Of those, about 100 are with the U.S. Embassy’s Office of Security Cooperation; about 465 are providing security at the embassy and U.S.-protected facilities at Baghdad International Airport; 160 are running two joint operations centers in Baghdad and Irbil; and about 90 advisers are tasked with gathering intelligence that is “intended to inform the bases for recommendations for a way ahead.”
Warren declined to say whether the surveillance flights being conducted were also flying over Syria.
Andrew Tilghman contributed to this story.