By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States has boosted the number of surveillance flights over Iraq to nearly 50 a day from one a month as it faces Sunni Islamist militants who control swaths of Iraqi territory, a top State Department official said on Wednesday.
However, Washington has not yet authorized unmanned drone strikes, as requested by Baghdad, on the forces now known as Islamic State, Brett McGurk, deputy assistant secretary for Iraq and Iran, testified at a House of Representatives hearing.
"The formal request from the Iraqis for direct U.S. air support did not come in a formal way until May," McGurk said, which was too late to keep the Islamic State militants from overrunning Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city.
"And since that time, obviously, we've been looking at various options," he said.
The U.S. priority, he said, has been to "enable" the Iraqis to stop the insurgents on its own, using hellfire missiles, aircraft and the ramped up surveillance.
Islamic State, which shortened its name from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant after last month's advance, declared its leader "caliph" - ruler of all Muslims. It controls a stretch of territory from Aleppo in Syria to the outskirts of Baghdad.
McGurk's answers frustrated Republican and Democratic members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who said the administration missed a chance to stop the militants six months ago.
They questioned whether the OPEC oil producer would survive, less than three years after the withdrawal of U.S. troops ended a war that cost more than $2 trillion and killed almost 4,500 American troops and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.
Iraq's million-strong army, trained and equipped by the U.S. for about $25 billion, largely evaporated in the north after Islamic State militants overran Mosul last month.
'WORSE THAN AL QAEDA'
McGurk described Islamic State as "worse than al Qaeda."
"It's no longer a terrorist group. It's a full-blown army," he said.
Elissa Slotkin, acting deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, said the militants were particularly dangerous because they hold territory, have experienced fighters, are self-financing and include many Western passport holders who have traveled to Syria.
The United States has "up to" 775 troops in Iraq, of whom 475 are deployed to assure the security of U.S. personnel and facilities and 300 to monitor, including the amped-up surveillance and reconnaissance flights.
Committee members questioned administration officials about why Washington did not do more, and more quickly, as the militants advanced.
California Republican Representative Ed Royce, the panel's chairman, asked whether Iraq had sought U.S. air support as early as August 2013 or March of 2014, which could have prevented crisis from escalating in the region.
"The administration should have taken the opportunity to inflict decisive damage on ISIS from the air, through drone strikes while its fighters were encamped in the desert" months ago, Royce said.
Many lawmakers called for Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to step down, but administration officials declined to be drawn into discussing the issue.
(Editing by Bernadette Baum)