The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told lawmakers Wednesday that two entire Iraqi military divisions — roughly 60,000 troops — once trained by U.S. soldiers, simply dissolved in northern Iraq last week and in some cases even joined forces with advancing Sunni extremists militants in the nation.
“Two divisions, and part of two, and one national police organization did, in fact, throw down their arms, and in some cases collude with, in some cases simply desert, in northern Iraq,” Gen. Martin E. Dempsey said.
In testimony before a Senate appropriations panel on Wednesday morning, Gen. Dempsey said Sunni members of the Iraqi military appear to have taken the action intentionally out of frustration with in the Shiite-dominated government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
“You can look back at some of our intelligence reports,” the general told lawmakers. “They did that because they had simply lost faith that the central government in Iraq was dealing with the entire population in a fair, equitable way that provided hope for all of them.”
He and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who appeared together Wednesday before the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on defense, said officials at the Pentagon are now attempting to assess what remains of the Iraqi military, the establishment and training of which had been a shining achievement of U.S. military forces who occupied Iraq from 2003 through 2011.
“There are some things we need to know about the fabric about what’s left of Iraqi security forces,” said Gen. Dempsey said, noting that the Pentagon, at this point, does not know for certain how many of Iraq’s military assets and weapons have fallen into the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) — the Sunni extremist group that has seized cities and towns across northern Iraq.
The remarks came during a hearing that had been schedule to focus on the Fiscal Year 2015 defense budget, but was quickly dominated by questions from both Republican and Democrat lawmakers about the situation unfolding in Iraq.
Sen. Richard Durbin, Illinois Democrat, pressed Mr. Hagel for an explanation about how the Obama administration had come during recent days to indicate its willingness to possibly work collaboratively with Iran toward dealing with the security meltdown now gripping northern Iraq.
“One of the four hard targets of the United States is Iran, which has been a source of great concern for the United States and a threat to stability in the Middle East and the world,” Mr. Durbin said. “Now we find conjecture and speculation that we need to work with Iran to stabilize Iraq.
“How did we find ourselves in this position?” he asked.
Mr. Hagel appeared visibly uncomfortable with the question.
“I wish I was wise enough to sort all of that out for you and give you a clear, concise answer,” he said.
“Let’s not forget that when we went in, the United States, into Afghanistan in late 2001, actually early on we had worked with the Iranians on that western border of Afghanistan, so there’s some history here of sharing common interests,” Mr. Hagel said. “We have significant differences, obviously. … Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism, all the other issues.
“But when it comes to the common interests of a nation, whether it’s the United States or any nation, that’s what forges some kind of reality to what we’re dealing with,” he added. “Certainly Iraq is a good example. All the neighbors in Iraq are being, will be, affected by what’s going on there.”
Mr. Hagel added that “ISIL and the other terrorist groups, those affiliated with al Qaeda, all are a threat to all nations, all governments, certainly including us. … These issues don’t come neatly wrapped in geopolitical, graduate-school papers. They are complicated.”