Lawmakers weigh US role against Islamic fighters in Iraq

A US military jet coming from Iraq landed on a Navy aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf after a mission Sunday.
Hasan Jamali/associated press
A US military jet coming from Iraq landed on a Navy aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf after a mission Sunday.

WASHINGTON — Islamic militants’ growing influence in Iraq and Syria is a threat to Americans, lawmakers from both political parties agreed Sunday even as they sharply split on what role the United States should play in trying to crush them.

President Obama approved limited airstrikes last week against Islamic State fighters, whose rapid rise in June plunged Iraq into its worst crisis since the end of 2011, when US troops withdrew from the country at the end of an unpopular eight-year war. Obama said the current military campaign would be a ‘‘long-term project’’ to protect civilians from the deadly insurgents.

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican, said the militants threaten not just Iraqis but also Americans. He said Obama’s strikes were insufficient to turn back the militants and were designed ‘‘to avoid a bad news story on his watch.’’


‘‘I think of an American city in flames because of the terrorists’ ability to operate in Syria and in Iraq,’’ said Graham, a reliable advocate for using US military force overseas.

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‘‘They are coming here,’’ Graham later added about the militants. ‘‘This is just not about Baghdad. This is just not about Syria. It is about our homeland.’’

Graham added that if Islamic State militants attack the United States because Obama ‘‘has no strategy to protect us, he will have committed a blunder for the ages.’’

The chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, Democrat of California, also said the militants pose a threat ‘‘in our backyard’’ and was recruiting Westerners.

‘‘Inaction is no longer an option,’’ she said in a statement as airstrikes were underway.


The rhetoric tracked closely to that used in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, lawmakers from both parties voted to give President George W. Bush the authority to take military action against Iraq in the hopes of combating terrorism.

At the time, many said the United States faced a choice of fighting terrorism on American soil or on foreign soil.

A close White House ally, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, a Democrat, said Islamic State fighters are a ‘‘growing and troublesome’’ threat. But he added, ‘‘We must not send the troops.’’

American airstrikes have included fighter jets and drones near Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region in northern Iraq, as recently as Sunday. The strikes are aimed at limiting Islamic State fighters’ advances and helping Iraqi forces regain control. US and Iraqi aircraft also have dropped humanitarian aid for the minority Yazidis, thousands of whom have been stranded on a scorching mountaintop since the Islamic militants seized Sinjar, near the Syrian border, last week.

A breakdown in talks between Washington and Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister, that would have allowed some US troops to remain in Iraq collapsed in 2008, and Obama withdrew troops in 2011.


Maliki now is under mounting pressure to step aside, including requests from US lawmakers.

‘‘The collapse of Mosul was not a result of lack of equipment or lack of personnel. It was a leadership collapse,’’ said Senator Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island.

Critics say the Shi’ite leader contributed to the crisis by monopolizing power and pursuing a sectarian agenda that alienated the country’s Sunni and Kurdish minorities.

The Islamic State group, which some lawmakers refer to as ISIS, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, is ‘‘getting stronger all the time,’’ warned Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican.

‘‘They have attracted 1,000 young men from around the world who are now fighting on their side,’’ McCain added. ‘‘This ISIS is metastasizing throughout region, and their goal, as they’ve stated openly time after time, is the destruction of United States of America.’’

Graham spoke to ‘‘Fox News Sunday.’’ Durbin appeared on NBC’s ‘‘Meet the Press.’’ Reed was interviewed on CBS’ ‘‘Face the Nation.’’ McCain was a guest on CNN’s ‘‘State of the Union.’’