The top U.S. general left open the possibility of an expanded role for American military advisers in Iraq.
Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters yesterday that no decisions have been made, when asked at a Pentagon news conference about options such as using U.S. personnel on the ground to spot targets for airstrikes against the Sunni militants who call themselves the Islamic State.
“Right now, as we sit here, the advisers are categorically not involved in combat operations,” Dempsey said. “They’re literally assessing. That’s their task.”
“If the assessment comes back and reveals it would be beneficial to this effort and to our national security interests to put the advisers in a different role, I will first consult with the secretary,” Dempsey said. “We will consult with the president, we’ll provide that option, and we’ll move ahead. But that’s where we are today.”
President Barack Obama, who brought U.S. troops home from Iraq in 2011, has said they won’t return to ground combat there as militants battle the Iraqi Army. He hasn’t ruled out airstrikes, while pressing first for Iraq to develop a more inclusive government.
Dempsey told reporters that Iraqis probably won’t be able to recapture the territory lost to militants without outside help.
About 200 of the 300 military advisers authorized by Obama are now in Iraq to assess the situation and advise the Iraqi military, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said at the news conference. He said joint operations centers are open in Baghdad, the capital, and in Erbil in northern Iraq. An additional 470 military personnel are in the country to provide security for the U.S. embassy and the Baghdad airport.
U.S. airstrikes are “one of the options” that “we will continue to develop pending the assessment and pending Iraqis’ political process,” Dempsey said.
Attacks from the air pose difficulties because of “the intermingling of Sunni groups that had formerly opposed the Iraqi government” with the militants, Dempsey said.
The general said the assessment by U.S. advisers may result in recommendations on how to improve the Iraqi army’s combat and logistics capabilities to launch counter-offenses against the Islamic State.
Special operations forces now in Iraq as assessors are also trained in calling in airstrikes on specific targets, as they did in in October 2001 at the start of the war in Afghanistan.
After the insurgents “made some pretty significant and rapid advances” in Iraq Dempsey said, “they’re stretched right now -- stretched to control what they’ve gained and stretched across their logistics lines of communication,” he said.
“The Iraqi security forces are stiffening around Baghdad” and “they’re capable of defending Baghdad,” he said.