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US General to seek ground troops if airstrikes can’t stop ISIS advance

President Obama has repeatedly ruled out any combat forces in Iraq

By: New York Times | Washington |
September 17, 2014 1:06:23 am
Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey during the hearing at Capitol Hill in Washington Tuesday.  (REUTERS) Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey during the hearing at Capitol Hill in Washington Tuesday. (REUTERS)

Gen. Martin E Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress on Tuesday that he would recommend deploying United States combat forces against Islamic extremists in specific operations if the current strategy of airstrikes was not successful, raising the possibility of the kind of escalation that President Obama has flatly ruled out.

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, he said while he was confident in the ability of the coalition of American, European and Middle Eastern governments to stop the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, he could not completely close the door to eventually asking Obama to commit ground troops to fight the group.

“My view at this point is that this coalition is the appropriate way forward. I believe that will prove true,” he said. “But if it fails to be true, and if there are threats to the United States, then I of course would go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include use of US military ground forces.”

Any future commitment of American personnel on the ground could put Obama in a difficult position, as he has repeatedly insisted that no American troops would engage in the battlefield, and Gen. Dempsey sought to explain the apparent contradiction.

“His stated policy is that we will not have US forces in ground combat,” Gen. Dempsey said, adding, “He has told me to come back to him on a case-by-case basis.”

In his speech last week announcing the expanded campaign against ISIS, Obama said the military advisers he was sending to Iraq would help Iraqi and Kurdish forces with training, intelligence, and equipment. But he emphatically ruled out front-line fighting.

“These American forces will not have a combat mission —we will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq,” he said.

But as General Dempsey made it clear, the reality of the battle might make such a hands-off approach insufficient. When Iraqi or Kurdish forces are trying to dislodge militants from urban areas like Mosul, airstrikes are less effective because they can cause civilian casualties.

In those cases, the general said, he might recommend to the president that the US send Special Operations troops to provide what he called “close combat advising”, essentially working alongside Iraqi commanders in the field and helping them direct troops to targets.

Gen. Dempsey and secretary of defence, Chuck Hagel, were on Capitol Hill on Tuesday to provide up-to-date information on the administration’s plan for confronting the militant group. They said the plan would include the training and equipping of 5,000 Syrian fighters, the involvement of more than 40 coalition nations, including 30 that have pledged military support, and 1,600 American military personnel who will assist.

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