White House looks to aid Kurdish fighters in Iraq

The Obama administration needs to boost its military support to Iraq’s Kurdish minority, which has suffered a string of setbacks in the last several days battling a Sunni militant group, according to key members of Congress.

This week, fighters from the insurgent group known as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) captured a slew of cities in northern Iraq and seized control of the country’s biggest dam in Mosul, which produces power for much of the surrounding area.

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The defeats have been an embarrassment for Kurdish peshmerga forces, which are widely regarded as highly trained and, until this week, maintained security throughout their territory even as ISIS rolled up large swaths of Iraq and Syria.

“It would be wise for the United States to lend air support, through the use of drones, to the Kurdish forces because if we do not it is going to be a humanitarian nightmare of unspeakable proportions,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) told The Hill on Monday.

He noted that militants had already seized a dam in Fallujah and there were reports the group aims to take control of the Haditha Dam in western Iraq.

If the militants succeed in capturing all three sites “they’re going to control the water, they’re going to control the electricity, they’re going to have at their disposal the capacity to flood Baghdad,” Royce warned.

ISIS in June conducted a series of successful raids to capture major towns in both Syria and Iraq and threatened to move on Baghdad. The strikes led President Obama to dispatch nearly 750 troops to Iraq to assess the country's security forces and report back to Washington on how the United States might bolster them.

Those surveys were delivered last month, but no formal recommendations have been made, according to Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby.

On Tuesday he rejected claims by Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and the U.N., that the Defense Department was already overseeing air strikes in Iraq.

“We're not coordinating air attacks in Iraq. We're not,” Kirby told reporters during a press briefing.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said the latest gains made by ISIS were “deeply disturbing” and slammed the administration for taking “no discernible action” to degrade the group. 

“With each day, ISIS grows stronger, larger, wealthier, more ambitious and more dangerous,” McCain, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the United States is supporting both Iraqi and Kurdish security forces by sharing information from newly established joint operations centers in Irbil and Baghdad. The sites were set up as part of the U.S. assessment process.

He said the administration “welcomed” a surprise announcement made on Monday by Iraqi Prime Ministers Nouri al-Maliki that the Iraqi Air Force would carry out strikes in the semi-autonomous region to help root out the terrorist group.

Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said Washington should work with Baghdad to ensure the peshmerga have the ammunition and supplies they need to “push back” ISIS.

In a statement to The Hill he urged the Iraqis, including the Kurds to strike a “political deal” that would stabilize the country and siphon off support from the militant group.

Still, Royce said, “right now it falls on the shoulders of the Kurdish forces, the peshmerga, who have a long history of being tested in battle.”

"A lot's at stake," he added.

— Justin Sink contributed to this story.