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Dempsey Opens Door to Potential U.S. Ground Combat Role

This post has been updated. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that he will recommend that U.S. troops accompany Iraqi forces on combat missions against Islamic State militants if the situation calls for it. "To be clear, if we reach the point ...

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<> on November 15, 2011 in Washington, DC.

This post has been updated.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that he will recommend that U.S. troops accompany Iraqi forces on combat missions against Islamic State militants if the situation calls for it.

"To be clear, if we reach the point where I believe our advisors should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific ISIL targets, I will recommend that to the president," said Dempsey, using an acronym for the Sunni militant group.

The comments were the latest to suggest possible daylight between the Pentagon and the White House, which has flatly ruled out that the United States would have boots on the ground in Syria or Iraq. President Barack Obama, who pulled the last U.S. combat troops out of Iraq in 2011, emphasized that point last week in his prime-time address to the American public in which he laid out his strategy for beating back ISIS, which controls huge swaths of Syria and Iraq and has recently beheaded two American journalists.

"These American forces will not have a combat mission — we will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq," Obama said last week. "[The strategy] will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil."

The United States currently has more than 1,600 troops in Iraq, and that number has been steadily increasing. They are mostly serving in an advisory role, but on Tuesday Dempsey raised the possibility of their accompanying Iraqi forces during combat operations should they attempt to retake the strategic city of Mosul, which fell to IS militants in June. If approved, such a recommendation would put U.S. troops closer to harm’s way in a counterterrorism effort that has mostly relied on missile strikes from the sky.

"I have not come to an occasion where I believe that’s necessary," said Dempsey. "If I get to a point with a particular mission where I think they should accompany them, I’ll make that recommendation."

Hawkish Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe told Dempsey "that there was a collective sigh of relief at ISIS headquarters in Syria when they heard" Obama rule out having U.S. boots on the ground. Inhofe pointed to the fact that an escalating air campaign would be far more effective if there were American spotters on the ground to call in strikes.

"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.

Testifying alongside Dempsey, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that the U.S.-led war with the Islamic State is not going to be "easy or brief."

"The new, broader air campaign will include strikes against all ISIL targets and enable the Iraqi security forces, including Kurdish forces, to continue to stay on the offensive and recapture territory from ISIL and hold it," said Hagel. "Because ISIL operates freely across the Iraqi-Syrian border and maintains a safe haven in Syria, our actions will not be restrained by a border in name only."

All this week the Obama administration is attending briefings and hearings with Congress to build support for its protracted campaign against the radical Sunni militant group.

Specifically, the administration wants Congress to authorize a Pentagon program to train and equip Syrian rebels, which the administration believes can be enlisted in the fight.

Hagel said the plan would involve the training of 5,000 Syrian rebels in one year in Saudi Arabia, numbers Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said would be inadequate in the fight against IS. McCain also questioned whether the moderate rebel group the Free Syrian Army can be enlisted to fight the Islamic State when their primary objective is to topple the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. When Dempsey said the rebel group could be instructed to take on ISIS first, McCain accused him of having a "fundamental misunderstanding of the Free Syrian Army."

The administration has also had a hard time maintaining a coherent public line about the Islamic State’s capabilities and intentions. Hagel has previously said that the group is "as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen" and described it as more dangerous than al Qaeda. The administration’s top counterterrorism chief has highlighted the dangers posed by the hundreds of Westerners — including Americans — who have fought alongside the group and could use their passports to return home and carry out new strikes. Several lawmakers cited that threat as well.

Following the hearing, the chairman of the committee, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said Dempsey’s remarks should not be construed as a suggestion that U.S. ground combat forces could be deployed soon. "I think if the media reads this whole discussion here this morning as somehow or other that General Dempsey is suggesting that ground forces may be needed I think you’re taking what he said in a way that he did not say and did not intend," he said. "Every military leader’s going to say if there’s a change in circumstances he’s going to be open to a different recommendation."

The Pentagon released a similar statements hours later. "The context of this discussion was focused on how our forces best and most appropriately advise the Iraqis and was not a broader discussion of employing US ground combat units in Iraq," said Col. Ed Thomas, Dempsey’s spokesman.

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