State official: Iraq plan sound, but 'a race against time'

Lawmakers on Thursday expressed doubt with U.S. plans to help Iraq coalesce under a strong central government and restructure its security forces to beat back the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL).

"Many look and say that what is happening on the ground is accelerating towards a breakup of Iraq," said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).

"The question is, can you even get to a federalist model the way things are evolving in Iraq?" he asked.

Brett McGurk, deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq and Iran, assured lawmakers that officials were acting with urgency.

"I think we're in a race against time. There's no question," McGurk said.

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But he told the committee that political progress was being made with the convening of a new parliament this week with a new speaker, and the naming of a new Iraqi president Thursday.

Iraq now has a 15-day clock to name a prime minister, and then 30 days to form a Cabinet, McGurk said.

Administration officials said the plan is to help Iraq establish a federalist government representative of Iraq's Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish groups, and restructure its security structure to allow local forces to be in charge of security in their area, in a "National Guard-type force." 

The Iraqi army would then focus on federal functions, such as protecting international borders, and also provide assistance to local troops fighting back militants, officials said.

"Restoring stability and degrading ISIL will require a smart, integrated, central, regional and provincial approach, led by a new Iraqi government with an appropriate level of U.S. support and assistance," McGurk said.

Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of the U.S. Central Command, was in Iraq Thursday discussing with local officials how best to assist the effort, he said.

"Once that government is stood up, we need to embrace it and give it every chance to succeed," McGurk told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday.

McGurk pushed back against assertions that the U.S. was waiting to provide further military support until the new government was formed.

"We're not waiting," he said. "We have people on the ground now doing significant things under the Strategic Framework Agreement, which exists with the future Iraqi government and the current one and the one before that."

McGurk also told lawmakers that leaders of the four Iraqi army divisions that fled were all fired, and 10,000 of the forces in those divisions are now going through a three to four-week retraining program.

"Iraqis, just in the past month, in terms of fighting units, they've suffered almost 1,000 killed in action, and they are holding the line and they are beginning to conduct some very rudimentary offensive operations to clear some highways," McGurk said Wednesday.

But lawmakers on Thursday expressed doubt over whether the current prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, would step aside, and whether a new one could undertake the necessary reform.

"Do you really believe, bottom of your heart, there is somebody in Iraq, of the Shia sect, that can do that as prime minister if we move through this process?" asked Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"There are a handful of very capable leaders who may emerge as the next — as the next prime minister of Iraq, but we're gonna have to see this one unfold fairly rapidly over the coming days," McGurk said.

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