By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S.-led air war against Islamic State militants has frozen the immediate threat from that group, and now is the time for Iraq's Shi'ite-dominated government to mend its rift with disenfranchised Sunnis, U.S. military officials said on Tuesday.
"Quite frankly, we need to see in Iraq political outreach that addresses the fact that some 20 million Sunnis are disenfranchised with their government," Lieutenant General William Mayville told a hearing on global threats facing the United States.
Mayville, director of operations for the Pentagon's Joint Staff, told lawmakers he endorsed the current steady, deliberate pace of efforts to defeat Islamic State in Iraq and Syria because it gave the Iraqi government time to act politically, a step he said was necessary to resolve the crisis.
"I think it is very, very important that the pace of operations be such that ... the military lines of effort don't get out in front of the political lines of effort that must be achieved in order to get an enduring solution here," he told a panel in the House of Representatives.
Mark Chandler, acting director for intelligence for the Joint Staff, agreed, saying "one of the things that really concerns me going forward is if the Shi'ite forces believe that they can control ISIL (Islamic State) without reconciliation with the Sunnis."
Marine Corps Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the panel he was concerned about the spread of Islamic State beyond Syria and Iraq.
"With affiliates in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, the group is beginning to assemble a growing international footprint," he said.
Despite immediate concerns about militants in places such as Syria and Libya however, Stewart told the panel the groups did not pose an "existential threat" to the United States and Washington might have to accept some risk there to deal with more serious concerns.
"The global security environment is the most challenging of our lifetime," Stewart said. "Russian military activity, for example, is at historically high levels."
In addition to pursuing "aggressive foreign and defense policies," such as supporting anti-government militants in Ukraine, Moscow was conducting long-range air patrols and record numbers of naval operations outside its area, he said.
Stewart said China's activities also raised concerns, noting Beijing appeared to be designing its forces to challenge U.S. military presence in the region.
"I think both China's training and some of their weapons capabilities are a significant threat to our forces," he said.
(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)