Engel Opening Statement at Full Committee Hearing "Al-Qaeda's Resurgence in Iraq: A Threat to U.S. Interests"

Washington D.C.–Rep. Eliot L.Engel, the senior Democratic Member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, delivered the below remarks, as prepared for delivery, at today’s full committee hearing “Al-Qaeda’s Resurgence in Iraq: A Threat to U.S. Interests."

“Mr. Chairman, thank you for holding this important hearing on Al-Qaeda’s resurgence in Iraq and the threat this poses to U.S. security interests.

“Last month, Al-Qaeda extremists occupied the city of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi in Iraq’s Sunni-dominated Anbar province.   To be sure, this has serious implications for Iraq’s security.  But it also has a deeper, symbolic meaning for Americans.  As all of us know, U.S. Marines fought two bloody battles to secure Fallujah during the Iraq war.  I want to acknowledge our brave men and women in uniform who lost their lives, as well as their families, who continue to grieve their losses every day. 

“Iraq continues to be ravaged by sectarian violence – and the situation is getting worse.  Last year, more than 8,500 Iraqis were killed in bombings, shootings and other violent acts – the most since 2008.  I should note that on Monday of this week, the senior leadership of Al-Qaeda excommunicated and disowned their affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), as a result of that group’s tactics in Syria.  For the purpose of this hearing, ISIS remains a threat to stability in Fallujah, other areas of Anbar Province, and the whole of Iraq. 

“Some may argue that the lack of an enduring U.S. troop presence in Iraq has contributed to the resurgence of violence, especially Sunni terrorism related to Al-Qaeda.  But let’s be honest:  The dire security situation in Anbar province is much more about Iraqi politics than it is about the United States.  In any case, the 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  We’ve withdrawn from Iraq, and we aren’t going back.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, the U.S. maintains a huge stake in Iraq’s security, and I believe we should continue to provide appropriate assistance to the Iraqi military in their fight against ISIS.  But we must also recognize that the current situation in Anbar can’t be resolved through military means alone.  An all-out assault on Fallujah by the Iraqi security forces would play right into hands of ISIS, reinforcing the perception among Sunnis that they have been systematically victimized by Prime Minister Maliki’s Shia-led government.  

“To defeat Al-Qaeda, the Iraqi government must take a page out of our playbook from the Iraq war and enlist moderate Sunni tribes in the fight.  I understand that Vice President Biden recently discussed this issue with Prime Minister Maliki, encouraging him to incorporate tribal militias fighting ISIS into the Iraqi security forces and to compensate those injured and killed in battle.  By taking these steps, I am hopeful that Maliki can begin to bridge the widening sectarian gulf in Iraq.

“The deterioration of Iraq’s control over Anbar is also linked to larger regional dynamics.  We saw how Al-Qaeda in Iraq expanded its franchise into Syria, and now we see violence from that brutal war spilling back into Iraq.  This has strengthened ISIS and served as a recruitment vehicle for thousands of foreign fighters.  The slow bleed in Syria has been a clear hindrance to progress in Iraq. 

“Iran’s nefarious influence in the region also contributes to instability.  It is well known that some senior Iraqi officials have a cozy relationship with Iran, and Iraq has not done nearly enough to prevent Iranian overflights that deliver weapons to Hezbollah and the Assad regime in Syria.  In order to stabilize Iraq, the Iraqi government will need to be a more responsible actor in the region. 

“The discussion today is important to understanding how we can encourage a political solution in Iraq that will give Sunnis a meaningful stake in the future of their country.  This is the only viable way to build a safer future for Iraq, while helping to curb Iranian influence and hopefully reducing the violence in Syria. 

“I’d like to thank Deputy Assistant Secretary Brett McGurk, one of the foremost experts on Iraq, for being here today to address these issues with us.  I look forward to your testimony and our discussion.”