WASHINGTON — Brett McGurk, the Deputy Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran, told lawmakers Wednesday that he anticipates more high-profile attacks in Iraq as an al-Qaida-linked group grows in power.
The latest suicide and vehicle-borne bombings in Baghdad killed at least 34 people and wounded dozens more Wednesday, according to several reports.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks, but they bear the signature of al-Qaida’s former affiliate in Iraq. The group — which calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — became resurgent following the withdrawal of American troops and the emergence of a large-scale insurgency in neighboring Syria. ISIL has taken over the city of Fallujah, which was the scene of bloody battles between insurgents and U.S. troops during the height of the Iraq War.
The attacks Wednesday are just the latest example of escalating violence and the growing strength of jihadists. There were only a handful of suicide bombings each month at the end of 2012, but in 2013 ISIL carried out an average of 30 to 40 suicide bombings each month; in December that number rose to 50, according to McGurk.
Nearly 8,000 civilians and 1,000 Iraqi security force members were killed in violent attacks in Iraq last year, according to the United Nations, although not all of those deaths are attributable to ISIL.
It was the deadliest year in Iraq since 2008.
McGurk told lawmakers that he anticipates more attacks like the ones carried out Wednesday, especially suicide attacks by foreigners coming into Iraq through Syria.
“I think ISIL is going to maintain its pace of operations and continue to be a very serious threat,” he said.
The U.S. will help the Iraqi government deal with the insurgent threat by providing intelligence sharing, weaponry, training, and military planning, McGurk said. The U.S. is providing hundreds of Hellfire missiles for the Iraqi security forces to use against jihadist camps, and Apache attack helicopters will be delivered later this year. The U.S. is not contemplating bombing the camps directly, McGurk said.
Gen. Lloyd Austin III, the commander of U.S. Central Command, traveled to Iraq last week to meet with Iraqi military leaders to discuss the way forward. The U.S. is in talks with regional partners about allowing U.S. forces to train Iraqi conventional forces on their soil since the U.S. is barred from having large numbers of boots on the ground in Iraq, McGurk said.
While visiting wounded warriors at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio last month, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was asked about the deteriorating situation in Iraq and whether the sacrifices of those who took part in Operation Iraqi Freedom were in vain.
“In eight years, we did accomplish what we set out to do,” Hagel said. “If we analyzed what Iraq is today versus what Iraq was when we went into Iraq, it’s a different country … You all did what you were asked to do, and I think you did it as well as it could have been done … So I don’t agree with the analyses that lives were wasted at all. I just — I don’t think that’s true, and I think it’s unfortunate that there are people out there saying that.”
Despite their violent tactics and jihadist goals, McGurk does not believe that ISIL is a threat to the United States.
“Right now they do not pose a direct threat to us or our personnel. But they pose a direct threat to the stability of Iraq,” he said in a Congressional hearing on the resurgence of jihadists. “It’s a very, very serious problem and a regional problem.”