Two top American defense officials on Wednesday faulted Iraqi leaders — both in the government in Baghdad and in the military in the field — for spiraling sectarian violence there.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told a Senate hearing that the United States, which left Iraq in 2011 after an eight-year occupation, had done “everything we could to help them.”
“But it’s up to the Iraqis,” he said. “They wanted to manage and govern their own country. So I don’t think we should assign blame to the United States for this.”
"It wasn't us that lost anything," he added. "We can't dictate to them."
In Iraq, Sunni militants have swept across the north and vowed to march to Baghdad. On Wednesday they laid siege to an oil refinery that plays a big role in the domestic energy supply. The Shiite-led government says it is striking back.
Both Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said they were surprised that entire divisions of Iraqi troops threw down their weapons and deserted when confronted by ISIS.
Dempsey said that all or parts of four Army divisions and one national police organization quit in part because they lost faith in the government and because ISIS co-opted some military leaders.
"Soldiers are not going to stick around" to see what happens when their leaders have been turned, Dempsey said.
Dempsey said he feels “bitter disappointment” that Iraqi leaders have “failed to unite for the good of their people.”
He said images of Al Qaeda-inspired extremists raising flags over Iraqi cities “triggers in me the same thing that runs through the minds of any veteran who served there, which is bitter disappointment that Iraq’s leaders failed to unite for the good of their people.”
Iraqis have asked for help with air power, and Dempsey said Wednesday he knew they also need intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assistance, principal elements of defense.
"We have maneuvered a great deal of both manned and unmanned ISR to... gain clarity on what is occurring," he said.
The chairman credited American troops in Iraq, who left in 2011, for doing “exactly what we asked them to do.”
“I share alarm about the future of Iraq, and we are developing a full range of options to help stabilize the region,” he said.
— Erin McClam and Courtney Kube
The Associated Press contributed to this report.