WASHINGTON - Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki came under fire from US lawmakers Wednesday for the slow pace of political reconciliation and links to Iran, said to fuel a wave of suicide bombings.
Lawmakers in the House of Representatives gathered to assess the threat of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and its offshoot, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), as a new round of bombings rocked Baghdad, killing 33 people.
Militants linked to Al-Qaeda are now carrying out an average of 40 mass attacks a month, in Iraq's bloodiest eruption of violence in six years and the worst since US troops withdrew in 2011, said House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce.
"As head of state, while he may not be up to it, Maliki must take steps to lead Iraq to a post-sectarian era," Royce insisted, as Iraq prepares for April elections.
The militants were benefiting from "the alienation" of the country's Sunni population from its Shiite-dominated government, which also has strong ties to Iran's Shiite leaders in Iran, he added.
"Al-Qaeda has become very skilled at exploiting this sectarian rift, and Maliki's power grab has given them much ammunition," Royce said.
But in a passionate outburst, his Republican colleague Representative Dana Rohrabacher questioned why the United States, which is supplying Iraq with helicopters and drones to help fight the militants, was still involved in the country.
"Why do we feel compelled that we have to go in and be in the middle of a fight between people who are murdering each other?" he asked.
"Thousands of people are losing their lives to this insanity. Why does the United States feel that we need to become part of this insanity?"
"Why shouldn't we let them kill each other... We've done enough."
US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq Brett McGurk agreed: "The suicide bomber phenomenon, it is complete insanity."
He stressed that nearly all the suicide bombers were "foreign fighters who enter Iraq through Syria."
"Our message to all Iraqi leaders is firm: Despite your differences across a host of issues, you must find a way to work together when it comes to ISIL, an organisation that threatens all Iraqis," McGurk told lawmakers.
He also urged Maliki to "take extra measures to reach out to Sunni leaders and draw a critical mass of local population into the fight."
The United States, which invaded the country in 2003 to topple late dictator Saddam Hussein, has strategic interests to protect in the Middle Eastern nation.
"In Iraq, whether you like it or not, oil, Al-Qaeda, Iran, vital US interests are at stake. So we need to do what we can," McGurk said.
The United States was advising Iraqi commanders, particularly as they seek to retake the town of Fallujah, which was seized by ISIL fighters on New Year's Day.
"The plan is to have the tribes out in front but with the army in support because... ISIL is an army. They have heavy weapons. They have .50-caliber sniper rifles. They are very well trained and very well fortified," McGurk said.
The US has stepped up arms deliveries to Iraq, with 75 Hellfire missiles sent in December, and a notification to Congress of another 500, he said.
Ten ScanEagle unmanned aerial vehicles will be delivered this spring and a further 48 Raven UAVs later in the year.
McGurk, a veteran of US policy in Iraq, insisted that Maliki had made "dramatic and significant changes," particularly in trying to reconcile Sunni and Shiites, since he "got a very direct message" in a two-hour November meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington.
The Iraqi president also came under fire during the hearing for recent attacks on camps housing Iranian dissidents in which dozens have been killed.
"This is a crime against humanity. These are unarmed refugees, and which Maliki's own troops are murdering," said Rohrabacher.
Iraqi authorities have launched an investigation into the attacks on Camp Liberty and Camp Ashraf, denying any complicity.