US general: ground troops possible
The top US military leader has told Congress he would recommend that the US consider deploying ground forces to Iraq if President Barack Obama's expanded air campaign to destroy Islamic extremists fails.
Army general Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Senate panel that the goal for American advisers is to help Iraqi forces with planning, logistics and co-ordinating military efforts by coalition partners to take out members of the Islamic State (IS) group.
"To be clear, if we reach the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific Isil (IS) targets, I will recommend that to the president," Gen Dempsey told the Senate armed services committee.
Pressed during questioning, Gen Dempsey said that under certain circumstances he "would go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of ground forces".
Mr Obama has maintained that American forces will not have a combat mission in Iraq.
Gen Dempsey and defence secretary Chuck Hagel fielded questions from politicians as Mr Obama met at the White House with the general who is co-ordinating international efforts and House Republicans privately reviewed legislation that would grant the administration's request to train and equip the forces who will combat the militants.
There was no indication of organised resistance to the administration request. The legislation is likely to come to a vote in the House on Wednesday and the Senate by week's end.
Still, some politicians said they doubted Mr Obama's current plan was sufficient to achieve his stated goal of degrading and defeating IS militants.
"I'm still not satisfied that the moderate Free Syrian Army is moderate or an army," said Rep. Mark Mulvaney, referring to the 5,000 or so individuals the administration hopes to train.
The leader of the House, Speaker John Boehner, told reporters: "I think there's a lot more that we need to be doing, but there's no reason for us not to do what the president asked us to do."
Gen Dempsey said Americans in Iraq are serving in a combat advisory role but not participating in direct combat. However, if the Iraqi forces took on a complex mission to retake Mosul, the general said he might want US troops to accompany the Iraqi troops or provide close combat advice.
The apparent contradiction of combat-trained forces not participating directly in combat was captured in one exchange between Senator Jim Inhofe, a Republican, and Gen Dempsey.
"Are pilots dropping bombs in Iraq a direct combat mission and will US forces be prepared to provide search and rescue missions if pilots get shot down and be prepared to put boots on the ground to make that mission be successful?" Mr Inhofe asked.
"Yes and yes," Gen Dempsey said.
The US military conducted strikes near Baghdad against IS, which has seized large swaths of Iraq and Syria. Gen Dempsey said the US is prepared to strike IS targets in Syria.
"This will not look like 'shock and awe' because that is not how Isil (IS) is organised. But it will be persistent and sustainable," Gen Dempsey said, referring to the air bombardment at the start of the Iraq war in March 2003.
Several politicians have their doubts about the US 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. IS grew out of the al Qaida movement but the two are now fighting. In some instances, the moderate Free Syrian Army has teamed up with al Qaida's local franchise, the Nusra Front.
Mr Hagel said the US will monitor them closely to ensure that weapons do not fall into the wrong hands.
Anti-war protesters filled the front rows at the hearing, chanting "no more war" at the start of the session and repeatedly interrupting the evidence. The protesters were escorted from the room.
Mr Hagel said the involvement will not be "an easy or brief effort. We are at war with Isil, as we are with al Qaida".
At the White House, Mr Obama and vice president Joe Biden met with retired marine general John Allen, who is co-ordinating international efforts to combat IS militants.
The legislation taking shape in Congress includes a provision stating that "nothing in this section shall be construed to constitute a specific statutory authorisation for the introduction of US armed forces into hostilities or into situations wherein hostilities are clearly indicated by the circumstances".