US military chief backs use of troops against jihadists

Comments of chairman of the joint chiefs of staff at odds with president’s position

US defence secretary Chuck Hagel (left) and joint chiefs of staff chairman Gen Martin Dempsey testify on Capitol Hill yesterday. Photograph: Getty Images

US defence secretary Chuck Hagel (left) and joint chiefs of staff chairman Gen Martin Dempsey testify on Capitol Hill yesterday. Photograph: Getty Images

 

The highest-ranking military officer in the United States has said he would advise US president Barack Obama to send in ground troops to fight Islamic State (IS) militants if the strategy to use battlefield fighters from US coalition partners failed.

Testifying before Congress, Gen Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, left open the possibility of US ground troops returning to Iraq to fight the group also known as Isis and Isil. His comments appear to put him at odds with Mr Obama’s promise last week that the escalation of the fight against the radical fighters would not involve US troops in combat.

 

‘Appropriate way forward’

Gen Dempsey told the Senate armed services committee he believed an international coalition led by the US, supporting Iraqi, Kurdish and Syrian opposition fighters on the ground, was the “appropriate way forward” in tackling IS.

“But if that fails to be true, and if there are threats to the United States, then I of course would go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of US military ground forces,” he said.

Mr Obama has said repeatedly he has no intention of sending ground troops into battle directly with IS. “We will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq,” he said in a televised speech last week, deploying a further 475 troops into Iraq to support local fighters battling IS.

Gen Dempsey acknowledged Mr Obama’s policy to avoid combat ground troops and explained their opposing positions, saying the president had told him “to come back to him on a case-by-case basis”.

In certain circumstances US advisers could accompany Iraqi troops, said Gen Dempsey, testifying alongside secretary of defence Chuck Hagel.

Mr Obama’s press secretary Josh Earnest said Gen Dempsey was referring to a “hypothetical scenario” in which there might be a future situation where he might make a tactical recommendation to use ground troops. It was the military’s responsibility to plan for a wide range of contingencies, he said.

The House of Representatives is due to vote today on whether to grant Mr Obama powers to train and equip Syrian opposition rebels as part of US strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” IS.

 

Caution

Republicans expressed caution about the president’s plans, wanting to strike a balance between pushing Mr Obama to take further action against the militant group but not giving him free rein to expand military operations.

 

“If our goal here is to destroy Isil, we have got to do more than train a few folks in Syria and train a few folks in Iraq and drop some bombs,” said GOP House speaker John Boehner. “I just don’t know if that’s enough.”

On Monday the US stepped up military action for the first time under Mr Obama’s strategy, striking IS targets near Baghdad in an attempt to push back the militants in the large parts of Iraq and Syria they control.

Kurdish ground troops supported by US surveillance aircraft and drones yesterday attacked positions near Mosul in northern Iraq.

Islamic State fighters shot down a Syrian combat aircraft using anti-aircraft guns, the first time the group has downed a military jet since declaring its cross-border caliphate in June, a group monitoring the civil war said.

The aircraft came down near IS stronghold Raqqa, 400km northeast of Damascus, during air strikes on territory controlled by the group, a resident said. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported five air raids on Raqqa yesterday. – (Additional reporting: Reuters)