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Carter and McCain Spar Over ISIS, More U.S. Gear May Head for Iraq

Defense Secretary Ash Carter turns the tables on Sen. John McCain.

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 09:  U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter testifies during a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee December 9, 2015 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee held a hearing on the U.S. strategy to counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and U.S. policy toward Iraq and Syria.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 09: U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter testifies during a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee December 9, 2015 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee held a hearing on the U.S. strategy to counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and U.S. policy toward Iraq and Syria. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Pushing back against criticism of a stalled war against the Islamic State, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Wednesday the United States is ready to deploy more military advisors to Iraq, along with attack helicopters, to push the fight forward.

Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carter also said he agreed with comments by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, who declared earlier this month that the Islamic State is “not contained.”

Taken together, the comments by Dunford and Carter counter President Barack Obama’s claim that the extremists have been contained in Iraq and Syria after a $5.2 billion bombing campaign over the last 16 months.

Even so, Carter sparred with committee Chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) over a host of issues, ranging from war strategy and stalled Pentagon nominees to funding Syrian fighters and establishing a no-fly zone in northern Syria.

McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have been forceful advocates for sending American combat troops to Iraq, which would add thousands of forces to the 3,500 military trainers and advisors there now.

McCain estimated there are between 20,000 and 30,000 Islamic State fighters. “They are not giants,” he said, doubting that “air power alone” can remove the Islamic State from the vast swaths of land it currently controls across northern and western Iraq.

McCain’s push for more ground troops was backed up earlier Wednesday by retired Army Gen. Ray Odierno, the former Army chief of staff and commander of the U.S. military in Iraq.

“You can’t defeat ISIS without having people on the ground,” Odierno, who retired in August, told MSNBC’s Morning Joe, using an alternative acronym for the Islamic State. He said putting U.S. and other coalition troops on the front line will provide intelligence about Islamic State fighters that air surveillance alone can’t provide.

“The intelligence we’re missing is the intelligence you gain on the ground,” he said. Odierno also questioned the Pentagon’s recent plans to send up to 200 U.S. special operations forces to the war zone for raids against Islamic State leaders in both Iraq and Syria. “Special ops can only do so much,” he said.

Carter told the Senate panel that the Obama administration is also pushing for more international participation in the fight. Over the last week alone, Carter said he personally reached out to 40 nations for more help in battling the Islamic State. That assistance, he said, could include special operations forces, strike and reconnaissance aircraft, and weapons and munitions.

But for all the criticism of the administration’s refusal to consider a no-fly zone in northern Syria — which many military experts believe would protect civilians from both the Islamic State and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime forces — Carter sought to point the critique back at the committee.

He blamed Congress for delaying $116 million to train and equip more moderate Syrian forces, as well as the slow pace of confirming nominees for senior leadership jobs at the Pentagon. Carter said the Senate has slow-walked 16 nominees — some since March — including open positions for the secretary of the Army and undersecretaries of the Army, Navy, and Air Force.

Photo credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

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