The Pentagon is considering sending U.S. troops to fight beside Iraqi soldiers as they take on more complex missions in the battle against Islamic State militants, according to Gen. Martin Dempsey, the nation's top military officer.
American ground troops may have to help Iraqi forces if they move to recapture critical areas, including Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, from the Sunni extremists, Dempsey told a congressional hearing Thursday.
“I’m not predicting at this point that I would recommend that those forces in Mosul and along the border would need to be accompanied by U.S. forces, but we’re certainly considering it,” he told the House Armed Services Committee.
Dempsey is chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
President Obama has vowed not to reintroduce ground troops to Iraq, but Dempsey’s comments - echoing those he made in September - suggest that option remains a possibility under some circumstances.
Aircraft from the United States and partner nations have been carrying out air strikes against militant strongholds and positions in Iraq since Aug. 8 and in Syria since Sept. 23.
The White House announced last week that Obama had approved sending up to 1,500 additional troops to Iraq, an escalation that roughly doubles the size of the U.S. force assisting Iraqi national and Kurdish troops battling the militants.
But the plan hinges, in part, on Congress approving $5.6 billion in special funding for the war.
Dempsey appeared at a four hour hearing along with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to explain the progress so far, and plans for the future.
Hagel said more than $3.4 billion would support U.S. military operations, while $1.6 billion would help pay for training and equipping Iraqi forces. The remaining money would go to the State Department.
Hagel said that Iraq's military, which was routed by the militants earlier this year, won't be an effective fighting force unless it has more support from the new central government in Baghdad.
The United States will withhold some money until the Iraqi government and coalition partners provide at least $600 million of their own, he said.
“The Iraqi government must invest in its own security and its own future,” Hagel said. “We cannot ensure a stable Iraq. The Iraqi people are going to have to do that themselves.”
The United States has shipped more than $685 million in equipment and supplies to Iraq in the current campaign, he said. The lethal equipment includes grenades, small arms, tank ammunition and air-to-ground Hellfire missiles.
Defense hawks on the committee pressed the pair for stronger action.
The committee chair, Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Santa Clarita), advocated embedding U.S. soldiers with Iraqi troops. He said the president's vow for "no boots on the ground" is too restrictive.
"Limiting our advisors to headquarters buildings will not help newly trained Iraqi and Syrian opposition forces hold terrain, much less defeat ISIL in the field," he said, referring to the Islamic State.
Hagel said the coalition's air campaign "will accelerate in tandem" as Iraqi forces get stronger on the ground.
"We are still at the front end of our campaign against ISIL," Hagel said. "Congressional support -- your support -- is vital for this campaign to succeed."