By Carlo Muñoz - 10/30/13 02:19 PM EDT
Al Qaeda's violent resurgence in Iraq and expansion into Syria now represents a "transnational threat network" that could possibly reach from the Mideast to the United States, according to the White House.
The teaming of al Qaeda's Iraqi cell and affiliated Islamic militant groups in Syria into the new Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has developed into "a major emerging threat to Iraqi stability . . . and to us," a senior administration official told reporters on Wednesday.
"It is a fact now that al Qaeda has a presence in Western Iraq" extending into Syria, "that Iraqi forces are unable to target," the official said.
That growing presence "that has accelerated in the past six to eight months" has been accompanied by waves of bombings and attacks that threaten to throw Iraq into a full-blown civil war.
Keeping ISIS from destabilizing the Iraqi government and expanding into other areas in the region is a "major focus" of this week's visit by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki to Washington.
The Iraqi delegation met with Vice President Joe Biden Wednesday morning, and will meet with congressional leaders later in the day.
Top defense lawmakers are already sounding the alarm on ISIS growth in the region and the threat posed by the al Qaeda faction to Iraq, Syria and ultimately the United States.
"As the situation in both countries grows worse . . . we are deeply concerned that Al-Qaeda could use its new safe haven in Iraq and Syria to launch attacks against U.S. interests and those of our friends and allies," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) along with Senate Armed Services Committee chief Carl Levin (D-Mich.), ranking member Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) wrote in a letter to President Obama.
Senate Foreign Relations heads Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) also co-signed the letter, sent to the White House on Tuesday.
"We urge you to press [al-Maliki] to formulate a comprehensive political and security strategy that can stabilize the country, enable Iraq to realize its vast potential, and help to safeguard our nation’s enduring national security interests in Iraq," they wrote.
One area lawmakers are pressing the White House and Iraqi government on is increased U.S. assistance for counterterrorism operations in the country, backed by supplies of American military weapons and intelligence.
Prior to this week's visit, Maliki told reporters in Baghdad he will press the White House to accelerate sales of F-16 warplanes and possible sales of unmanned aircraft to Iraq.
Washington and Baghdad inked a deal in August to provide Iraq's nacent military with the American jets.
Iraqi officials reportedly reached out to U.S. intelligence officials to see if American drones could begin conducting airstrikes against ISIS targets in Western Iraq.
When asked whether the White House was considering expediting those weapon sales to Iraq, the official replied: "I will leave it up to the Iraqis to make that case."
That said, the administration "is working closely with Congress" to facilitate the kind of military and intelligence aid being sought by al-Maliki from the United States.
Counterterrorism support is evaluated "country by country and in Iraq that is [especially] complicated," the official said, noting the long-standing tribal and sectarian ties woven into the country's makeup.
That said, the White House official ruled out the possibility of putting U.S. boots back on the ground in Iraq, in the form of military trainers, as part of any counterterrorism strategy.
The White House and Pentagon failed to reach a bilateral security deal with Baghdad that would allow a handful of American troops to remain in the country after the U.S. pullout in 2011.
That lack of a deal prevented Washington from fielding a postwar force in Iraq after the final withdrawal in December of that year.
White House critics claim Obama's inability to lock in a postwar deal with Iraq opened the door for al Qaeda's return to power in the country.