WASHINGTON (AP) — The nation’s top military leader told Congress on Tuesday he would recommend that the United States consider deploying ground forces to Iraq if President Barack Obama’s expanded air campaign to destroy Islamic extremists fails.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Senate panel that the goal for American advisers is to help Iraqi forces with planning, logistics and coordinating military efforts by coalition partners to take out members of the Islamic State group.
“To be clear, if we reach the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific ISIL targets, I will recommend that to the president,” Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committees, using an alternative name for the group.
Pressed during questioning, Dempsey said that under certain circumstances he “would go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of ground forces.”
Obama has maintained that American forces will not have a combat mission in Iraq.
Dempsey and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel fielded questions from lawmakers as Obama met at the White House with a retired general who is coordinating international efforts and House Republicans privately reviewed legislation that would grant the administration’s request to train and equip the forces who will combat the militants.
There was no indication of organized resistance to the administration request. The legislation is likely to come to a vote in the House on Wednesday and the Senate by week’s end.
Still, some lawmakers said they doubted Obama’s current plan was sufficient to achieve his stated goal of degrading and defeating the Islamic state militants.
“I’m still not satisfied that the moderate Free Syrian Army is moderate or an army,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, referring to the 5,000 or so individuals the administration hopes to train.
House Speaker John Boehner, told reporters, “I think there’s a lot more that we need to be doing, but there’s no reason for us not to do what the president asked us to do.”
The House’s No. 2 Democrat, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, told reporters he supports support the president’s request.
Dempsey said Americans in Iraq are serving in a combat advisory role but not participating in direct combat. However, if the Iraqi forces took on a complex mission to retake Mosul, the general said he might want U.S. troops to accompany the Iraqi troops or provide close combat advice.
The apparent contradiction of combat-trained forces not participating directly in combat was captured in one exchange between Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., and Dempsey.
“Are pilots dropping bombs in Iraq a direct combat mission and will U.S. forces be prepared to provide search and rescue mission if pilots get shot down and be prepared to put boots on the ground to make that mission be successful?” Inhofe asked.
“Yes and yes,” Dempsey said.
Dempsey said the White House has ruled out the use of special operations forces on the ground, but Obama has told him to come back “on a case by case basis” if the situation changes.
Pressed by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., about whether the U.S. would put troops on the ground in Syria if no other allies participate, Dempsey made clear his view that the American military alone — even with armored divisions on the ground in Syria — can’t defeat the Islamic State group’s threat.
Instead, he said, to defeat the threat, it will be crucial to have Arab and Muslim partners battling the group in the region.
The U.S. military has conducted strikes near Baghdad against the Islamic State group, which has seized large swaths of Iraq and Syria. Dempsey said the United States is prepared to strike Islamic targets in Syria.
“This will not look like ‘shock and awe’ because that is not how ISIL is organized. But it will be persistent and sustainable,” Dempsey said, referring to the air bombardment at the start of the Iraq war in March 2003.
Several lawmakers have their doubts about the United States being pulled into a larger war, with increasing numbers of American troops. The president has already dispatched more than 1,000 Americans three years after combat forces left Iraq.
Many Republicans and Democrats have expressed reservations about the ability to identify moderates in a country awash with rebel formations and shifting alliances. The Islamic State grew out of the al-Qaida movement, but the two are now fighting. In some instances, the moderate Free Syrian Army has teamed with al-Qaida’s local franchise, the Nusra Front.
Hagel said the U.S. will monitor them closely to ensure that weapons don’t fall into the wrong hands.
Dempsey said it would take three to five months to establish the training program, working with moderate Syrians who have been driven from their homes by Islamic militants. An estimated two-thirds of the approximately 30,000 extremists are in Syria.
“We have come a long way” in our ability to vet the moderate opposition and the U.S. learned a lot as it has funneled non-lethal aid to the rebels, Dempsey said.
Anti-war protesters filled the front rows at the hearing, chanting “no more war” at the start of the session and repeatedly interrupting the testimony. The protesters were escorted from the room.
Hagel said the involvement will not be “an easy or brief effort. We are at war with ISIL, as we are with al-Qaida.”
At the White House, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden met with retired Marine Gen. John Allen, who is coordinating international efforts to combat the Islamic State militants.
The legislation taking shape in Congress includes a provision stating that “nothing in this section shall be construed to constitute a specific statutory authorization for the introduction of U.S. armed forces into hostilities or into situations wherein hostilities are clearly indicated by the circumstances.”
The provision reflects a congressional divide between hawks seeking tougher action than that proposed by Obama and lawmakers weary from more than a decade of U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
AP White House Correspondent Julie Pace and reporters Erica Werner, Alan Fram, Andrew Taylor and Bradley Klapper contributed to this report.
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