The top U.S. military officer is leaving open the possibility that American ground troops could be deployed to Iraq to fight Islamic State militants.
U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey told a congressional panel Tuesday if he concludes U.S. military advisers need to accompany Iraqi fighters into battle against the insurgents, he would ask President Barack Obama for approval.
«If we reach the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraq troops on attacks against specific ISIL targets, I’ll recommend that to the president,» he said.
Meanwhile, the president met Tuesday at the White House with General John Allen, the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and Ambassador Brett McGurk, Deputy Special Presidential Envoy. Officials said the president underscored the importance of maximizing coordination with allies and partners to build a strong coalition with broad international participation.
In a speech last week, Obama declared the United States would expand its fight against the Islamic State group, but «will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq.»
State Department spokesperson Marie Harf, in response to question about Dempsey’s testimony on the possible need for U.S. ground forces to help fight IS, said, «The president has been very clear. We will not have troops on the ground of combat roles. Period. That is an underlying principle of our actions in Iraq. I think there was a long exchange this morning about what the advisers are doing, but we have been very clear about the military, the combat boots on the ground question.»
The American leader withdrew the last of U.S. ground forces from Iraq in 2011 after a nine-year war that toppled long-time Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
But Obama has dispatched more than 1,600 U.S. military advisers there in recent weeks to strengthen the Iraqi effort to halt the Islamic State advance across northwestern Iraq.
Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee the American advisers are acting «very much in a combat advisory role» and said there is currently «no intention» for them to engage in combat.
The United States has carried out more than 160 airstrikes against the militants in Iraq. In one exchange at the hearing, Dempsey said if U.S. pilots were shot down, ground troops would be deployed in a search and rescue mission.
Dempsey testified the U.S. is prepared to launch airstrikes against Islamic State positions in Syria, but has yet to do so.
Obama, in his role as the country’s commander in chief, has said he does not need congressional approval for the airstrikes. But he is asking Congress to approve funding for training and arming moderate Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State militants.
The U.S. House of Representatives is debating legislation that would require the Pentagon to give 15 days notice before any training takes place and regular updates after that. The House could vote as early as Wednesday. The measure would also need Senate approval.
A group of 24 nations, the European Union, Arab League and the United Nations pledged at a conference Monday to support the Iraqi government in its fight against the Islamic State, including providing «appropriate military assistance.»
House Republicans gathered behind closed doors Tuesday to discuss President Barack Obama’s request.
While some lawmakers emerged from the meeting saying they have concerns that the president’s strategy may not work, Republican House Speaker John Boehner says he sees no reason not to give the president the authority he is asking for.
Boehner indicated that the House will likely vote this week on a spending bill and an amendment that will fund and authorize training for Syrian rebels. He said that does not exclude the possibility that Congress may vote at a later time on a broader authorization of U.S. military action against the Islamic State militant group.
Leading Democrats have also signaled they are likely to vote for the amendment because they want to comply with the president’s request. Members of Congress are trying to get their work done quickly this week so that they can leave town and return to their home districts to campaign for November elections.