General: US could send advisors into combat in Iraq

2014-09-16 17:37

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Washington - The top US military leader told Congress on Tuesday that if President Barack Obama's expanded military campaign to destroy Islamic extremists fails, he would recommend that the United States consider deploying American ground forces to Iraq.

Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairperson of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Senate panel that the goal for American advisors is to help Iraqi forces with planning, logistics and coordinating military efforts by coalition partners to take out members of the Islamic State group.

"To be clear, if we reach the point where I believe our advisors should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific ISIL targets, I will recommend that to the president," Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committees, using an alternative name for the group.

Pressed during questioning, Dempsey said he "would go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of ground forces".

Obama has maintained that American forces will not have a combat mission in Iraq.

Dempsey and Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel faced multiple questions from lawmakers in the first high-stakes hearing examining Obama's expanded military campaign to counter the relentless terrorist threat from Middle East extremists.

The US military conducted strikes near Baghdad against the Islamic State (ISIS) group, which has seized large swaths of Iraq and Syria. Obama is seeking congressional support to train and equip vetted Syrian moderates fighting both the Islamic militants and forces loyal to President Bashar Assad.

Dempsey said the United States is prepared to strike Islamic targets in Syria.

"This will not look like 'shock and awe' because that is not how ISIL is organised. But it will be persistent and sustainable," Dempsey said, referring to the air bombardment at the start of the Iraq war in March 2003.

Several lawmakers have their doubts about the United States being pulled into a larger war, with increasing numbers of American troops. The president has already dispatched more than 1 000 Americans three years after combat forces left Iraq.

Many Republicans and Democrats have expressed reservations about the ability to identify moderates in a country awash with rebel formations and shifting alliances.

The Islamic State grew out of the al-Qaeda movement, but the two are now fighting. In some instances, the moderate Free Syrian Army has teamed with al-Qaeda's local franchise, the Nusra Front.

Close monitoring

Hagel said the US will monitor them closely to ensure that weapons don't fall into the wrong hands.

"There will always be risk in a program like this, but we believe that risk is justified by the imperative of destroying ISIL - and the necessity of having capable partners on the ground in Syria," the defense secretary said.

Anti-war protesters filled the front rows at the hearing, chanting "no more war" at the start of the session and repeatedly interrupting the testimony. The protesters were escorted from the room.

Hagel said the involvement will not be "an easy or brief effort. We are at war with ISIL, as we are with al-Qaeda."

Obama and Vice President Joe Biden met in the Oval Office with retired Marine Gen. John Allen, who is coordinating international efforts to combat the Islamic State militants. Brett McGurk, a top Iraq adviser at the State Department, also took part in the meeting.

Scepticism was evident among lawmakers.

"I support the president 1 000 percent on air support. I do not support the training of Syrian rebels," Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat and a member of the Armed Services Committee, said on Monday. His reservations stemmed from the "eight years, $20bn to train" the Iraqi forces after the US invasion in March 2003. "See what the outcome was there," he said.

Another member of the committee, Senator John McCain, a Republican and frequent Obama critic, questioned the administration's resolve.

"How serious are we? We could have bombed Syria yesterday. We could have taken out ISIS. I can point out to them targets on a map," McCain said on Monday.

Racing to finish its work and leave Washington to campaign for the November elections, House Republicans finalised legislation to authorise the mission to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels.

The authorisation under consideration will be included as an amendment to a spending bill Congress must pass to keep the government open until mid-December.

That would give lawmakers the opportunity to hold a separate debate and vote on the matter - something members of both parties want. Votes could come as early as Wednesday.

Read more on:    us  |  iraq

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