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Chairman Menendez’s Opening Remarks at Hearing on Iraq at a Crossroads: Options for U.S. Policy

Washington, DC –  U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered the below statement, as prepared for delivery, at today’s hearing titled “Iraq at a Crossroads: Options for U.S. Policy.”

“Today we will focus on Iraq and U.S. policy options. But, to fully examine the crisis in Iraq, we must acknowledge the broader context of developments across the region.

“Earlier this year, I held a hearing on the “Spillover from the Syria Conflict” to examine the implications of continued violence in Syria and how it would impact the stability and security of neighboring countries. Now, we are seeing the very dangerous results of that spillover – with the advancement of ISIS, the increase in sectarian violence, underscored by the dissolution of any real border between Iraq and Syria and the designation by ISIS of a “caliphate” across Syria and Iraq that is threatening to create a security vacuum in the heart of the Middle East.

“While today’s hearing will not focus specifically on the regional threat posed by ISIS or on U.S.-Syria policy, I will take this opportunity to restate my long-held position that we must enhance our support to the moderate Syrian opposition – the only ones willing to challenge ISIS and other Al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria. It seems to me, at the end of the day, supporting these moderate forces must be one pillar of a broader U.S. policy in the region.

“No one should be surprised that Iraq is the victim of this spillover, but we should be extremely concerned by the rapid expansion of ISIS and alarmed by Iran’s clear involvement in Iraq, and we should be dismayed by the convenient alignment of Iranian-Russian-Syrian interests in response to recent developments, especially in Iraq.

“At its core, this alignment is about self-preservation of rogue actors that seek to maintain power by destabilizing others and keeping weak governments susceptible to malign influence. In my view, Iraq does not have to proceed down this path; and it is up to Iraq’s leaders to chart a different course for their country.

“I am deeply disappointed that after years of U.S. investment in time and resources; the loss of thousands of American lives; and commitment of billions of dollars to support Iraq’s political development and the creation of a responsible, capable Iraqi Security Force. They deserted the communities they were responsible for protecting, abandoned U.S. military equipment, and fled from ISIS fighters.

“At the same time, ISIS’s expansion across Iraq and its reception by Iraq’s Sunni communities and tribes would not have been possible except for the accumulation of years of destructive, sectarian, corrupt policies by the central government in Baghdad. Iraq has the potential to be an economically prosperous, diverse, and politically representative model for others in the region, but Iraqi leaders have focused on their own sectarian and ethnic interests for too long at the expense of building an Iraq for all Iraqis.

“The time is now for Iraq’s elected leaders to form a national unity government that is truly representative; I applaud the recent progress in nominating a Speaker and two deputy speakers for Iraq’s Parliament, and today’s promising news that a President has been named.  I encourage Iraq’s leaders to continue this critical work and finalize the government with leaders committed to leading an Iraq for all Iraqis.

“While Iraq’s leaders continue negotiations to form the next government, the Department of Defense has completed the assessment of Iraqi Security Forces. I look forward to hearing from our Administration witnesses on the findings and recommendations provided by the U.S. advisors, and plans going forward to counter the threat from ISIS, and Congress’ role in this effort.

“I want to take a moment to highlight the particularly dangerous situation of minority communities in Iraq, and particularly Iraqi Christians. I recently joined Senator Stabenow in a meeting with Archbishop Bashar Warda from the Chaldean Diocese of Erbil. His description of the terror that ISIS has inflicted in Iraqi Christian communities is truly horrifying. I hope that our witnesses today will share with us steps that the Administration is taking to address the unique and urgent situation of Iraqi Christians. Senator Stabenow has asked that I submit several letters for the record regarding the plight of Iraqi Christians; and I look forward to working with her further on this critical issue.

“I also want to acknowledge the Iraqi Ambassador to the United States Lukman Faily who is in attendance today. I received a letter this week from the Ambassador – following our meeting a few weeks ago – asking that Congress and the Administration make the U.S. commitment to Iraq clear by providing support and assistance to turn the tide against ISIS if the Iraqi government takes steps to broaden its political base and accelerate the formation of the government.

“Without objection – I will submit his letter to the Congressional record, and hope to hear from our Administration witnesses today whether or not they believe Iraqi leaders are able to form a more representative government; what is required to turn the tide against ISIS; and if there is a new national unity government in Baghdad, what should we do to demonstrate support?"