U.S. says al-Qaeda is ‘skilled’ in exploiting Iraq

Lawmakers criticize Iraqi government over strong ties to Iran and ‘alienation’ of the Sunni population

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The Iraqi government, which has strong ties to Shiite Iran, has allowed al-Qaeda-linked militants to benefit from “the alienation” of the country’s Sunni population, Agence France-Presse reported U.S. lawmakers as saying Wednesday.

Lawmakers in the House of Representatives gathered to assess the threat of al-Qaeda in Iraq and its offshoot, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), as a new round of bombings rocked Baghdad, killing 33 people.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce criticized Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government for the slow pace of political reconciliation.

“Al-Qaeda has become very skilled at exploiting this sectarian rift, and Maliki’s power grab has given them much ammunition,” Royce said.

Royce sounded the alarm when he said militants linked to al-Qaeda are now carrying out an average of 40 mass attacks a month, in Iraq’s bloodiest eruption of violence in six years and the worst since U.S. troops withdrew in 2011.

“As head of state, while he may not be up to it, Maliki must take steps to lead Iraq to a post-sectarian era,” Royce insisted, as Iraq prepares for April elections.

Meanwhile, the State Department’s Brett McGurk said at the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing that the Iraqi government needs to do more to prevent Iran from flying weapons and fighters through its airspace en route to Syria.

Maliki has been accused by the United States of allowing Iran to fly planes through Iraqi airspace and send support to bolster Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom Washington blames for a nearly three-year-old civil war that has killed more than 130,000 people.

“The issue of overflights is something where the Iraqis have not done enough,” Reuters quoted McGurk as saying.

He added: “We continue to press this issue. Inspections go up, inspections go down. It’s very frustrating.”

His comments come as the Obama administration is seeking to expedite delivery of a range of U.S. weaponry to Maliki’s government as it fights a resurgent militant threat.

McGurk, who serves as deputy assistant secretary for Iraq and Iran, said it is difficult for the United States to get specific intelligence about the flights, but that military equipment is believed to be transported from Iran on civilian aircraft.

Meanwhile, in a passionate outburst, the Republican Representative Dana Rohrabacher questioned why the United States, which is supplying Iraq with helicopters and drones to help fight the militants, was still involved in the country.

“Why do we feel compelled that we have to go in and be in the middle of a fight between people who are murdering each other?” he asked.

“Thousands of people are losing their lives to this insanity. Why does the United States feel that we need to become part of this insanity?”

“Why shouldn’t we let them kill each other... We’ve done enough.”

However, McGurk said “in Iraq, whether you like it or not, oil, Al-Qaeda, Iran, vital U.S. interests are at stake. So we need to do what we can.”

The United States was advising Iraqi commanders, particularly as they seek to retake the town of Fallujah in Anbar province, which was seized by ISIS fighters on New Year’s Day.

“The plan is to have the tribes out in front but with the army in support because... ISIS is an army. They have heavy weapons.

They have .50-caliber sniper rifles. They are very well trained and very well fortified,” McGurk added.

The Iraqi president also came under fire during the hearing for recent attacks on camps housing Iranian dissidents in which dozens have been killed.

“This is a crime against humanity. These are unarmed refugees, and which Maliki's own troops are murdering,” said Rohrabacher.

Iraqi authorities have launched an investigation into the attacks on Camp Liberty and Camp Ashraf, denying any complicity.

(With AFP and Reuters)

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