US ground troops may need return to Iraq to fight IS militants, top general warns

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Gen Martin Dempsey raises prospect of escalating US involvement, putting himself at odds with White House’s promise of no ground troops

US ground troops may need to return to Iraq to defeat the Islamic State, America’s top military officer admitted for the first time Tuesday, putting him at odds with the White House’s promise there will be “no US boots on the ground”.

General Martin Dempsey said US troops could be embedded as advisors with Iraqi forces during missions to retake jihadist-occupied cities or to help guide American jets during complicated airstrikes.

“If we reach the point where I believe our advisors should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific IS targets, I’ll recommend that to the President,” Gen Dempsey said.

His words raise the spectre of “mission creep”, with US forces being dragged further into a foreign conflict, and will likely alarm the American public, which is firmly opposed to ground troops returning to the Middle East.

They also appear to contradict President Barack Obama’s definitive promise to a war-weary country that the campaign against IS “will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil”.

Gen Dempsey and Chuck Hagel, the US secretary of defence, also urged Congress to provide arms and training for the moderate Syrian rebels, saying 12,000 rebel fighters would be needed to confront IS in Syria.

The two men appeared before a Senate hearing after US aircraft attacked jihadist fighters outside of Baghdad over the weekend, in their first strike since Obama expanded the American mission in Iraq.

“The airstrike southwest of Baghdad was the first strike taken as part of our expanded efforts beyond protecting our own people and humanitarian missions to hit IS targets as Iraqi forces go on offense,” the US Central Command said.

Obama will on Wednesday meet with the American commanders in charge of the campaign against IS and Congress is expected to vote this week to provide $500 million (£300 million) in support of the Syrian rebels.

Gen Dempsey faced questions from sceptical senators on whether Iraqi forces or the Syrian rebels would be able to roll back the gains made by IS.

Deviating from the White House script, the general outlined a number of situations when US troops could be sent to the front line in an advising or support role.

If Iraqi or Kurdish troops were poised to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, “it could very well be part of that particular mission to provide close combat advising or accompanying for that mission,” he said.

He also conceded that commanders had already suggested using US special forces to guide airstrikes but that so far none had been ordered in.

Both missions would put US troops in close proximity to IS fighters, even if they were not directly involved in combat.

His words set the stage for a clash between generals pushing for ground troops to complete their mission and a White House determined not to send American soldiers back into harm’s way.

Gen Dempsey acknowledged that ground troops were not part of the policy Obama laid out to the American public in a speech last week.

“At this point his stated policy is that we will not have US ground forces in direct combat,” Gen Dempsey said. “But he has told me as well to come back to him on a case by case basis.”

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