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U.S. knew Islamist militants planned offensive in Iraq, lawmakers told

| Wednesday, July 23, 2014, 7:36 p.m.
REUTERS
Smoke rises from a Shiite mosque after it was destroyed in a bomb attack by militants of the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the city of Mosul, July 23, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer (IRAQ - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS RELIGION)

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration knew an attack was in the works three days before the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria's offensive in northern Iraq, but U.S. efforts to mount a response were hampered by the Iraqi government's insistence that it could handle the threat, two top U.S. architects of Iraq policy said on Wednesday.

The officials drew bipartisan criticism from the House Foreign Affairs Committee as members accused the Obama administration of taking insufficient steps to counter the expansionist goals of the Islamic State, an al-Qaida spin-off that operates freely throughout most of eastern Syria and across the vast swaths of northwestern Iraq that it seized last month.

Brett McGurk, the State Department's deputy assistant secretary for Iraq and Iran who just returned from a seven-week trip to Baghdad, and his counterpart at the Defense Department, Elissa Slotkin, a former Iraq director for the National Security Council, told the panel that the U.S. government had tracked the Islamic State but was caught off guard by the scope of the extremists' offensive and the rapid collapse of the American-trained Iraqi security forces.

McGurk said the United States warned the Iraqi government on June 7 that American intelligence had received “early indications'' that extremists were “moving in force from Syria into Iraq and staging forces in western Mosul.”

Within days, the Islamic State had captured Mosul with little resistance from the security forces.

Four or five divisions of the Iraqi army simply dissolved. McGurk and Slotkin blamed poor leadership rather than a lack of fighting capability for the breakdown and called for an overhaul of Iraq's defense forces.

But McGurk bristled against suggestions that the Obama administration could have done more, noting that President Obama had ordered “a surge of intelligence assets,” asked U.S. special forces to get an “eyes-on picture” from the ground and had moved an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf in response to the campaigns in Iraq's Anbar province this year.

Slotkin described the Islamic State as “one of the most capable and best-funded groups in the region right now,” more worrisome than previous al-Qaida-style networks.

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