Iraq’s sectarian crisis is threatening to evolve into a regional war as Washington’s two main adversaries in the Middle East — Syria and Iran — mount a military response to Sunni extremists who have seized swaths of Iraqi territory over the past three weeks.
U.S. and Iraqi officials confirmed Wednesday that Syrian warplanes this week have pounded areas of western Iraq believed to be under the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and said Iran is shipping tons of military equipment to Baghdad while launching a small fleet of drones over Iraq.
While the governments of Syria and Iran have denied reports of activity, the developments have escalated the complexity of an treacherous standoff between Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite Muslim populations and placed increasing pressure on the Obama administration to identify friend from foe in the crisis.
The administration, meanwhile, came under fresh criticism Wednesday from an influential Republican lawmaker who said the White House failed in recent years to recognize the seriousness of the threat posed by ISIL — not only to the region but also Europe and the United States.
Rep. Mike Rogers, who chairs the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said lawmakers were briefed more than a year ago that the al Qaeda-inspired group had access to a cache of Western passports and sought to carry out attacks against the U.S. and its allies.
The Michigan Republican slammed the administration, claiming it ignored repeated intelligence community assessments about the threat, and asserting that the president’s ambivalence toward those assessments had resulted in “a policy failure.”
“Not responding is a decision, not making a decision is a decision,” Mr. Rogers told reporters at a briefing hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.
Mr. Rogers asserted that President Obama’s own national security advisers received the same intelligence briefings that he and other lawmakers did about ISIL more than a year ago.
“We get all the raw intelligence,” he said. “It was very clear to me that years ago, ISIL/ISIS was pooling up in a dangerous way — building training camps, recruiting, drawing in jihadists from around the world. We saw all of that happening.”
But the question of how best to respond to ISIL’s rise during recent weeks in Iraq has confounded Republicans and Democrats.
The White House has signaled a willingness to work with Shiite-dominated Iran in stabilizing security in Iraq. But the administration also has long criticized the Islamic republic and Syria for colluding in a state-sponsored military campaign inside Syria that has facilitated ISIL’s rise.
Some analysts argue Iranian and Syrian operatives may have even promoted ISIL’s growth to help legitimize Syrian President Bashar Assad’s public claims to “fighting terrorists” rather than quashing an Arab Spring-style pro-democracy movement in Syria.
That the two nations now appear intent on aligning with Iraq’s Shiite forces to widen their campaign against ISIL is prompting growing unease among U.S. officials.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry pleaded Wednesday for all Mideast nations to resist taking any new military actions that might further inflame the crisis.
“We’ve made it clear to everyone in the region that we don’t need anything to take place that might exacerbate [the] sectarian divisions that are already at a heightened level of tension,” Mr. Kerry said at a meeting of diplomats from NATO nations.