Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, right, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey testify Wednesday before the Senate Appropriations Committee's Defense Subcommittee. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Wednesday pushed back on criticism that U.S. forces failed to protect Iraq from a predictable collapse, insisting blame be focused on the Iraqi government instead.
“We didn’t lose anything,” a visibly frustrated Hagel told members of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “We turned a pretty significant opportunity to the Iraqi people when we phased out. We have done everything we could. But it’s up to the Iraqis.
“I don’t think we can assign blame to the U.S. for this.”
The comments came during a budget hearing turned Middle East security briefing for lawmakers, most of whom expressed dismay at reports of the security collapse in the country where thousands of American troops died from 2003 through 2011.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Martin Dempsey acknowledged that Iraqi politicians in recent days have asked for air support to repel advancing forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Al-Sham, or ISIS, Islamic insurgents who have already seized a number of cities in northern Iraq.
White House officials are still weighing that request. Last week, President Obama said he would not consider putting U.S. combat troops on the ground in Iraq again, but is evaluating a range of other options, all contingent on political changes and reassurances from the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Dempsey and Hagel would not comment on those options, but did echo the need for changes in the country’s government to create any long-term security solutions.
Hagel said that U.S. forces had little choice but to depart the country in 2011 after political leaders there refused to give American troops legal protections. While defending the security progress won by U.S. troops, he also added that “we can’t dictate outcomes,” especially without a standing military presence in the country.
Dempsey said he was unsure if an enduring U.S. military force in Iraq would have prevented the insurgents’ gains, but also said that criticism ignores the realities of deep problems with the current government there.
“We can train them to fight. We can equip them to fight,” he said. “But the hardest thing to do is to build [military] leaders and have them appropriately supported by a central government.”
Dempsey also said Pentagon officials repeatedly warned the Iraqi government about the threat from ISIS, and the potential for a fracturing of Iraqi security forces in the north. Thousands of Iraqi troops reportedly have abandoned their posts in the face of the insurgent advance.
“There is little that could have been done to prevent the degree to which the [Iraqi] government failed its people,” he said.
Still, both Dempsey and Hagel said that the portrayal of all Iraqi security forces as incompetent is unfair, and said the country’s military can repel the ISIS threat. But success is contingent on political reforms and inclusion of all religious factions in the central government.
The White House and Pentagon spent most of Tuesday briefing various lawmakers on the possible paths ahead. Navy forces already have been repositioned in the region to provide a quick response if needed, and defense officials earlier this week announced plans to bolster embassy security in the country.?