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US general says cannot rule out larger ground role in Iraq - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (L) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey (R) testify during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on US policy toward Iraq and Syria and the threat posed by ISIS in Washington, September 16, 2014. (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (L) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey (R) testify during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on US policy toward Iraq and Syria and the threat posed by ISIS in Washington, September 16, 2014. (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

Washington, Reuters—The most senior US military officer raised the possibility on Tuesday that American troops might need to take on a larger role in Iraq’s ground war against Islamic State militants, but the White House stressed they would not deploy on a combat mission.

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said there was no intention now to place American military advisers on the ground in direct combat. At present, US assistance is taking other forms, including air strikes.

However, Dempsey outlined scenarios in which he might recommend having US troops do more, potentially accompanying Iraqis during complicated offensives, such as a battle to retake the northern city of Mosul from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). “It could very well be part of that particular mission—to provide close combat advising or accompanying for that mission,” Dempsey said.

He acknowledged that US President Barack Obama’s “stated policy is that we will not have US ground forces in direct combat.” However, he added: “But he has told me as well to come back to him on a case-by-case basis.”

Obama said last week he would lead an alliance to defeat ISIS militants in Iraq and Syria, plunging the US into a conflict in which nearly every country in the Middle East has a stake. But Obama also ruled out a combat mission, saying: “We will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq.”

How exactly America’s role might evolve in the open-ended conflict remains unclear, however. Responding to Dempsey’s comments, the White House said Obama’s military advisers had to plan for many possibilities, but overall policy had not changed—that is, Obama would not deploy US troops in a combat role in Iraq or Syria.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters that 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’s spokesman also issued a statement stressing that the four-star general’s exchange in the Senate was not about “employing US ground combat units in Iraq.”

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

The US military’s Central Command is due to brief Obama on its plans on Wednesday. Hagel said those plans envision striking the militant group’s safe havens in Syria to knock out infrastructure, logistics and command capabilities.

Dempsey said the strikes would degrade the group’s capabilities as broader efforts got under way, including the training of more than 5,000 Syrian rebels. “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 US campaign to oust Saddam Hussein in 2003, and refers to the use of overwhelming force to undermine an enemy’s will to fight.

Congress is expected this week to approve a request from Obama for authorization to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels, one part of his program. However, Hagel acknowledged that the number of Syrian fighters who could be trained over the course of the year would only put the opposition on a 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.” One protester was escorted out of the room while holding a sign that read: “More war = More extremism.”

Senator Angus King of Maine, expressing concern that the US would be drawn into interminable battles against extremist groups around the world from Iraq to Syria to Africa, said: “This is geopolitical whack-a-mole,” referring to a game in which plastic moles are hit on the head with a mallet to force them back into their holes each time they pop up.

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat is the world’s premier pan-Arab daily newspaper, printed simultaneously each day on four continents in 14 cities. Launched in London in 1978, Asharq Al-Awsat has established itself as the decisive publication on pan-Arab and international affairs, offering its readers in-depth analysis and exclusive editorials, as well as the most comprehensive coverage of the entire Arab world.

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