Islamist militants that have swept across Iraq pose a clear and "imminent" danger to the Middle East, Europe and the United States, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Wednesday.
The Pentagon chief described the rise of Sunni insurgents as a serious threat only days after suggesting Washington was not on the verge of any military action to help the Iraqi government in its fight with the extremists, AFP reported.
"Make no mistake -- and this country should not make any mistake on this, nor anyone in Congress -- this is a threat to our country," Hagel said of the militants during a stop at a U.S. naval submarine base in the state of Georgia.
"This is a force that is sophisticated, it's dynamic, it's strong, it's organized, it's well-financed, it's competent," Hagel told troops in remarks broadcast by the Pentagon.
"And it is a threat to our allies all over the Middle East. It's a threat to Europe," he said at the base in King's Bay.
The extremist group "may not appear to be an imminent threat to the United States," but "it is a threat to the United States," Hagel said.
"It is a ... clear threat to our partners in that area, and it is imminent," he said, without elaborating.
After launching an offensive last month, militants belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have overrun areas in five provinces north and west of Baghdad, raising fears of an all-out sectarian war.
President Barack Obama has sent military advisors to Baghdad to help the Iraqi army counter the militants but has so far stopped short of ordering U.S. air strikes against the jihadists.
U.S. officials and experts fear the extremists, who are also fighting in Syria's civil war next door, will carve out sanctuaries that could serve as training camps and launching pads for terror attacks on the West.
Hagel, who briefed U.S. lawmakers on the crisis in a closed session on Tuesday, said that "what we are doing is assisting in every way we can to help the Iraqi people defeat the brutal fundamentalists that are attempting to not just destabilize Iraq, but essentially take control of Iraq."
The Pentagon chief acknowledged "sacrifices made by Americans" in Iraq during the grueling years of a U.S.-led war that began with the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. U.S. troops pulled out of Iraq in 2011.
Hagel said assessments of the Iraqi army by the roughly 200 U.S. military advisors on the ground would be finished in "the next few days."