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Dempsey raises possibility of involving U.S. combat troops in fight against Islamic State

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff raised the possibility Tuesday that U.S. troops could become involved in ground attacks against the Islamic State, despite repeated pledges to the contrary from President Obama.

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee that U.S. military advisers are helping Iraqi government forces prepare for a major offensive to reclaim territory seized by the Islamic State in recent months. Although the advisers have been assigned primarily to assist with planning and coordination, Dempsey for the first time suggested that they eventually could go into the field on combat missions.

"If we reach the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific [Islamic State] targets, I'll recommend that to the president," he testified.

Obama has ordered the deployment of 1,600 U.S. troops to Iraq since June in an effort to bolster Iraq's faltering army and stop the Islamic State's march across the country.

Even as the mission has gradually expanded and the Pentagon has launched more than 160 airstrikes against the Islamic State, Obama and other White House officials have consistently promised that U.S. troops will not engage in ground combat. As recently as last Wednesday, Obama said that "American forces will not have a combat mission -- we will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq."

Some military commanders have pressed the president to allow at least small teams of U.S. troops to join Iraqi forces on the front lines.

Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, recently recommended that Obama deploy small numbers of Special Operations forces with Iraqi units to advise and assist them during direct combat with the Islamic State.

Obama rejected that advice, although he approved a plan to embed small teams of U.S. advisers with Iraqi commanders at the brigade or headquarters level -- away from the front lines.

According to Dempsey's testimony, Austin also wanted to embed U.S. troops with Iraqi and Kurdish security forces last month to call in airstrikes during a battle to retake control of the Mosul Dam from the Islamic State. Dempsey suggested that Austin was overruled, saying the commander changed his mind after further discussions and "found a way" to organize the operation without U.S. personnel on the ground.

At the same time, Dempsey said he and Austin agreed that more situations will arise when military commanders will want to put U.S. Special Forces or airstrike spotters on the ground. "There will be circumstances when we think that will be necessary, but we haven't encountered one yet," Dempsey said.

By openly suggesting that U.S. ground combat forces will be necessary, Dempsey was walking a fine line between questioning the judgment of Obama, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and sharing his own professional military opinion with lawmakers and the public.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, asked Dempsey whether he supported Obama's strategy and prohibition on U.S. ground combat missions.

Dempsey said he agreed with the president's strategy. But he added that if the current approach were to falter and if the Islamic State came to represent a more immediate threat to the United States, he might recommend a different approach, possibly including "the use of U.S. military ground forces."

Later, he also said he might recommend that U.S. troops provide "close combat advising" to Iraqi forces if they were to attempt a complex mission, such as retaking the northern city of Mosul from the Islamic State.

In response to a question from Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Dempsey acknowledged that Obama's "stated policy is that we will not have U.S. ground forces in direct combat." But he indicated that there were scenarios under which Obama might change his mind, adding that the president "has told me as well to come back to him on a case-by-case basis."

Obama is scheduled to meet with Austin and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Wednesday at the U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa to review military strategy for Iraq and Syria. Last week, Obama said he has ordered an expansion of airstrikes, adding that it was time to "go on offense" against the Islamic State.

The debate about whether to send U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq -- and possibly into Syria -- is sensitive politically but in some ways a matter of semantics. Air Force and Navy pilots already are firing missiles and dropping bombs on Islamic State fighters in Iraq. And although the 1,600 U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq have not engaged in firefights with the Islamic State, they are armed and authorized to defend themselves.

But the issue also cuts to the heart of Obama's military strategy for fighting the Islamic State and whether U.S. forces should take a leading and visible role on the ground, or leave the fighting to Iraqi and Kurdish troops, as well as proxy forces in Syria.

Hagel told lawmakers that "we are at war" with the Islamic State and warned that "this will not be an easy or brief effort." He said it was vital to build a large coalition of Western and regional allies -- especially Muslim ones -- to counter the Islamic State. But he was short on specifics when asked which countries besides the United States and Iraq were willing to take direct military action.

Some lawmakers urged the Pentagon and White House to act more aggressively. Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.), the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said it was "foolhardy" for Obama to rule out ground troops to advise Iraqi forces in combat and help call in U.S. airstrikes.

"His claim of 'no boots on the ground' is an insult to the men and women in Iraq today who are serving in harm's way. We already have boots on the ground in Irbil and in Baghdad and throughout Iraq," Inhofe said. "It sends the wrong message to our troops, to the enemy and to partners."

[Source: By Craig Whitlock, The Washington Post, 16Sep14]

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