DENVER - Two top Senate Republicans talked terrorism Wednesday night before a packed opera house at a gathering for the Counterterrorism Education Learning Lab.
Arizona's John McCain and South Carolina's Lindsey Graham, political allies and fellow hawks on the Senate Armed Services Committee, decried U.S. efforts to tackle the Islamic State terror group that has captured wide swaths of Syria and Iraq and warned that a proposed nuclear deal with Iran would encourage aggression in the Middle East.
"Americans are tired of seeing other Americans beheaded on the Internet," McCain said.
Graham and McCain called for a more aggressive U.S. attack on Islamic State fighters, advocating the use of American ground troops to wrest control of the region. The U.S. has sent air power and advisers to the fight, but President Barack Obama has repeatedly pledged to avoid use of ground forces to combat the group.
Airstrikes continued against Islamic State fighters Wednesday, with Pentagon officials saying American planes hit seven targets in Iraq and Syria. Meanwhile, Iraqi officials claimed they had evicted IS fighters from Tikrit, while the terror group claimed gains near the Syrian capital of Damascus.
McCain said gains against IS have been made with the help of Iranian-backed militias.
"We are now in bed with the same people that killed Americans," McCain said, while advocating 10,000 American troops for the fight.
The use of ground troops against the Islamic state is a local issue for Colorado Springs, which sent more than 4,000 soldiers to Kuwait this year with Fort Carson's most heavily armored unit, the 3rd Brigade Combat Team. The brigade is America's regional reserve force for the Middle East, and they would be the first soldiers into battle if ground troops are sent.
If Graham and McCain were in charge, those troops may already be in the fight.
"I want to send troops over there so they don't come back here," Graham said, referring to terror strikes on U.S. soil.
Graham said the Islamic State and other terrorists will aim for America.
"They hate us. They hate us all," Graham said.
Another key complaint for the senators is Obama's move to broker a nuclear weapons deal with Iran, which would see Tehran drop its pursuit of nukes in exchange for lifted sanctions. Talks on the deal were extended for another day Wednesday.
Both said they want a nuclear-free Iran, but said a weak deal could kick off a Middle East arms race.
"You are now seeing the countries in the Middle East contemplating that they will have to go nuclear as well if this agreement goes through," McCain said.
McCain also said America needs to arm Ukrainian forces.
"Do not underestimate the ambitions of Vladimir Putin, my dear friends," McCain said.
Graham has been raising his profile and is considered a darkhorse candidate for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016. McCain backed his candidacy Wednesday.
Graham, though, remained coy.
"I'm looking at it," he said.
Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240