WASHINGTON - Islamic militants' growing influence in Iraq and Syria is a threat to Americans, lawmakers from both political parties agreed Sunday even as they sharply split on what role the United States should play in trying to crush them.
President Barack Obama last week approved limited airstrikes against Islamic State fighters, whose rapid rise in June plunged Iraq into its worst crisis since the end of 2011, when U.S. troops withdrew from the country at the end of an unpopular eight-year war. Obama said the current military campaign would be a "long-term project" to protect civilians from the deadly and brutal insurgents.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the militants threaten not just Iraqis but also Americans. He said Obama's strikes were insufficient to turn back the militants and were designed "to avoid a bad news story on his watch."
Kurdish and U.S. flags fly as displaced Iraqis from the Yazidi community cross the Syria-Iraq border at Feeshkhabour bridge over the Tigris River in northern Iraq on Sunday.
"I think of an American city in flames because of the terrorists' ability to operate in Syria and in Iraq," said Graham, a reliable advocate for using U.S. military force overseas.
"They are coming here," Graham later added about the militants. "This is just not about Baghdad. This is just not about Syria. It is about our homeland."
Graham added that if Islamic State militants attack the United States because Obama "has no strategy to protect us, he will have committed a blunder for the ages."
The chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, D-Calif., also said the militants pose a threat "in our backyard" and were recruiting westerners.
"Inaction is no longer an option," she said in a statement as airstrikes were under way.
The rhetoric tracked closely to that used in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, lawmakers from both parties voted to give President George W. Bush the authority to take military action against Iraq in the hopes of combating terrorism.
At the time, many said the United States faced a choice of fighting terrorism on American soil or on foreign soil.
A close White House ally, Democrat Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, said Islamic State fighters are a "growing and troublesome" threat. But he added, "We must not send the troops."
American airstrikes have included fighter pilots and drones near Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish region in northern Iraq, as recently as Sunday. The strikes are aimed at limiting Islamic State fighters' advances and helping Iraqi forces regain control. U.S. and Iraqi aircraft also have dropped humanitarian aid for the minority Yazidis, thousands of whom have been stranded on a scorching mountaintop since the Islamic militants seized Sinjar, near the Syrian border, last week.
The State Department said Sunday it had relocated a limited number of staff members from the U.S. consulate general in Irbil. Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the move was made "out of an abundance of caution rather than any one specific threat." Staffing at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad "remains the same," she said.
A breakdown in talks between Washington and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that would have allowed U.S. troops to remain in Iraq collapsed in 2008, and Obama withdrew troops in 2011. Al-Maliki now is under mounting pressure to step aside, including requests from U.S. lawmakers.
"The collapse of Mosul was not a result of lack of equipment or lack of personnel. It was a leadership collapse," said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I.