WASHINGTON (AFP) – The White House and the US military on Tuesday scrambled to play down a suggestion by the nation’s top officer that deploying ground forces in Iraq to fight Islamic State militants was an option.
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff and President Barack Obama’s top military advisor, had said US military advisors could be sent into combat alongside Iraqi forces.
Dempsey said the US personnel could “provide close-combat advising,” but the White House insisted the idea of US troops in battle was a “purely hypothetical scenario.” And in a day of mixed messages, Colonel Ed Thomas, a spokesman for the general, then tried to bring some clarity to the situation, saying in a rare statement that Dempsey “doesn’t believe there is a military requirement for our advisors to accompany Iraqi forces into combat.”
Military leaders nevertheless warned of a further escalation in their battle against the radical militants, just as two branches of the rival al-Qaeda group called for a united front against the war coalition Washington is building.
US jets have been targeting IS fighters in northern Iraq since August 8, and in recent days hit militants southwest of Baghdad for the first time, in a significant expansion of the campaign.
US Central Command said that, in addition to bombing IS fighters threatening the northern city of Arbil, strikes had destroyed a guerrilla ground unit and two supply boats southwest of Baghdad.
The campaign appeared to bear fruit on Tuesday when Kurdish peshmerga fighters – who now receive Western military supplies and US air support – retook seven Christian villages overrun by jihadists.
In Washington, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel told US lawmakers that plans were being laid to hit targets in Syria, where the IS group is holding Western hostages and has a stronghold in the city of Raqa.
“This plan includes targeted actions against ISIL safe havens in Syria, including its command and control, logistics capabilities, and infrastructure,” Hagel told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Dempsey had gone further than any US official before in saying that the military advisors that Obama has dispatched to bolster Iraqi forces could get drawn into combat.
Obama’s administration has insisted that his action against the IS extremists is not the start of another US ground war in the Middle East, and that there will be no large-scale American invasion.