Dempsey: In U.S. Interest to 'Counter ISIS Wherever We Find Them'

By Susan Jones | June 18, 2014 | 11:36 AM EDT

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

( - Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey told Congress on Wednesday that the Iraqi government has asked the U.S. for air power to stop the advance of al-Qaeda-linked terrorists (ISIS/ISIL) who want to establish their own Islamic nation stretching from Iraq to Syria.

"Do you think it's in our national security interests to honor that request?" Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) asked Dempsey.

"It is in our national security interests to counter ISIL wherever we find them," he replied.

Graham also asked Dempsey if ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) has vowed to attack the United States.

"There is open source reporting that they, although currently a regional threat, they do have aspirations to attack Western interests," Dempsey agreed.

"And if they have a safe haven in Syria and Iraq, and operate from Aleppo to Baghdad with impunity, that's a bad scenario for us, is that true?" Graham asked.

"That is a -- that is a high-risk scenario," Dempsey agreed.

"To our homeland being attacked by this group," Graham clarified.

"Over time," Dempsey replied. "Not at this time, but over time."

Graham also asked Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel  if he worries that the situation in Iraq could turn into "another Benghazi on steroids," given the thousands of Americans living in Iraq. The American embassy in Baghdad is bigger than any other U.S. embassy, with about 5,000 people working there.

"Well, it's a bigger force, bigger threat, bigger dynamics, yes -- it's a huge threat," Hagel told Graham.

Graham has said that the U.S. should enlist Iran's help to boost security in Iraq, even though the Iranians are "up to no good" and are "thugs and killers."

The Associated Press reported on Wednesday that President Barack Obama "has shifted his focus away from airstrikes in Iraq as an imminent option for slowing a fast-moving Islamic insurgency, in part because there are few clear targets that U.S. could hit."

The AP quoted "officials" as saying that Obama has made no final decisions and could ultimately approve limited strikes if clearer targets emerge.

The CIA and other spy agencies reportedly are "scrambling to close intelligence gaps in the region and track the movements of key figures in the militant group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS/ISIL), which seized Mosul, Tikrit and other towns in Iraq as the country's military melted away.

Obama was meeting with top congressional leaders at the White House Wednesday afternoon to discuss the collapsing security situation in Iraq.