Middle East

Top U.S. general says larger ground role in Iraq possible

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, left, and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the first in a series of high-profile Capitol Hill hearings that will measure the president's ability to rally congressional support for President Barack Obama's strategy to combat Islamic State extremists in Iraq and Syria, in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2014. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON: The most senior U.S. military officer raised the possibility Tuesday that U.S. troops might need to take on a larger ground role as they fend off ISIS militants in Iraq, but the White House stressed there would be no combat mission for U.S. ground forces.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said there was no intention of placing American military advisers on the ground for direct combat. The U.S. plan relies on other contributions, including airstrikes.

Still, he told a Senate hearing: “I’ve mentioned, though, that if I found that circumstance evolving, that I would, of course, change my recommendation.”

Dempsey offered scenarios in which a larger role might be worthwhile, including embedding U.S. forces with Iraqis during a complicated offensive, such as a battle to retake the northern city of Mosul from ISIS fighters.

“It could very well be part of that particular mission to provide close combat advising or accompanying for that mission,” he said. “But for the day-to-day activities that I anticipate will evolve over time, I don’t see it to be necessary right now.”

U.S. President Barack Obama said last week he would lead an alliance to defeat ISIS militants in Iraq and Syria, plunging the United States into a conflict in which nearly every country in the Middle East has a stake.

Obama ruled out the possibility of a combat mission that could drag the United States into another ground war in Iraq.

Responding to Dempsey’s comments, the White House said Obama’s military advisers had to plan for many possibilities and that overall policy had not changed – that Obama would not deploy U.S. troops in a combat role in Iraq or Syria.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Dempsey was “referring to a hypothetical scenario in which there might be a future situation where he might make a tactical recommendation to the president as it relates to ground troops.”

Dempsey was testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, along with U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, as the Obama administration makes its case to Congress for broadening operations against the Sunni militants, which would include U.S. airstrikes in Syria for the first time.

Hagel said the military plan would be outlined to Obama Wednesday by the U.S. Central Command. It envisions striking the militant group’s safe havens to knock out infrastructure, logistics and command capabilities.

Dempsey said the strikes would degrade the group’s capabilities as broader efforts get underway, including training of some 5,400 Syrian fighters in Saudi Arabia. Congress is expected to approve this week a request from Obama for $500 million to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels, one part of his program. “This won’t look like a ‘shock and awe’ campaign because that’s simply not how [ISIS] is organized. But it will be a persistent and sustainable campaign,” Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“Shock and awe” was a term popularly used to describe the initial air assault on Baghdad in the U.S. campaign to oust Saddam Hussein in 2003, and refers to use of overwhelming force to undermine an enemy’s will to fight.

Still, Hagel acknowledged the number of Syrian fighters that could be trained over the course of the year would only put the opposition on the path to roll back ISIS fighters.

“Five thousand alone is not going to be able to turn the tide. We recognize that,” Hagel said.

The Senate hearing was repeatedly interrupted by anti-war protesters, shouting slogans such as, “There is no military solution.”

Senator Angus King of Maine, expressing concern that the United States would be drawn into interminable fights against extremist groups around the world from Iraq to Syria to Africa, said: “This is geopolitical Whack-A-Mole.”

Separately, the top U.S. Republican said he backed Obama’s “sound” plan to arm and train vetted Syrian rebels for battling extremists and called on Congress to authorize the action.

“Frankly I think the president’s request is a sound one,” House Speaker John Boehner told reporters after convening a caucus meeting to convince members to approve the issue in a crucial vote expected Wednesday.

“There’s no reason for us not to do what the president asked us to do,” he added. But he reiterated a common theme emerging among Republican conservatives that there was “a lot more” Washington could do to battle ISIS.

“If our goal here is to destroy ISIL,” Boehner said, using another name for the group, “we’ve got to do more than train a few folks in Syria, and train a few folks in Iraq, and dropping bombs.”

Lawmakers said they expect Congress will approve the measure this week, in the form of an amendment to a stopgap government funding bill, before recessing until after the Nov. 4 congressional elections.

Boehner and others calle for a broader debate over American use of force against ISIS jihadists to be launched after election day.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 17, 2014, on page 1.

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