Gen. Martin Dempsey, the military's top officer, repeatedly raised the prospect Tuesday of sending U.S. troops to fight alongside Iraqi soldiers against Islamic State militants, despite President Obama's vows not to do so.
Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he would recommend using U.S. ground troops if he deemed it necessary to rescue a downed pilot, to call in airstrikes to assist Iraqi and Kurdish forces, or to help achieve a key military objective, such as freeing the captured city of Mosul.
"If we reach the point where I believe our advisors should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific ISIL targets, I'll recommend that to the president," Dempsey said at the top of his prepared testimony, using one of several abbreviations for Islamic State.
Sending American troops back into ground combat in Iraq for the first time since U.S. forces were withdrawn in December 2011 would be a major escalation of the offensive Obama announced last week, and a political setback for the administration.
The White House quickly moved to clarify Dempsey's remarks, calling them "a hypothetical scenario." Col. Ed Thomas, a spokesman for Dempsey, later issued a statement saying the general believes the president's strategy is appropriate and "doesn't believe there is a military requirement" for U.S. advisors to accompany Iraqi troops into combat.
The incident suggested a growing rift between the White House and Pentagon at the outset of the intervention, much as Obama overruled Dempsey's recommendations in 2012 to train Syrian opposition groups seeking to topple President Bashar Assad.
White House officials have been frustrated in recent days as Pentagon officials described military plans before the president was ready to approve them, said a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the internal debate.
The official said tension has developed because the war planners are eager to act, and the White House is seeking to build an international coalition and secure more cooperation from Iraq's new prime minister, Haider Abadi, before dramatically expanding the U.S. role.
Dempsey last month publicly warned that Islamic State could not be defeated unless the United States or its allies battled the militant group in Syria. At the time, that was at odds with the policy stated by Obama.
In his testimony Tuesday, Dempsey indicated that Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the top commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, had proposed using special operations forces or other specialists to help Iraqi troops retake the Mosul dam last month. The president did not approve the proposal, and the U.S. limited its support to intelligence and airstrikes.
"Dempsey views his role as the guy who tells it like it is without a political filter," said Samuel D. Brannen, senior fellow at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former Pentagon strategist. "He wants to make sure that the American people know what they're getting into and he's just being more candid than the administration."
It wasn't immediately clear whether Dempsey's warnings, a day before Obama heads to MacDill Air Force Base in Florida for briefings by top military commanders, were meant to ready the public for a reversal in strategy, or were simply language aimed at congressional hawks who have criticized Obama's strategy as too little too late to roll back the Sunni Muslim extremists who have overrun much of eastern Syria and northwestern Iraq.
Dempsey told the committee that U.S. troops may be required "at some point" to help Iraqi and Kurdish security forces retake Mosul, which fell to the militants in June. Thousands of defending Iraqi troops fled during the insurgents' advance, abandoning large stores of heavy weapons and ammunition. U.S. airstrikes in an urban area would probably kill Sunni Arab civilians, he said.
"It could very well be part of that particular mission to provide close combat advising or accompanying for that mission," Dempsey said of any effort to retake the city. "But for the day-to-day activities that I anticipate will evolve over time, I don't see it to be necessary right now."
Fresh fighting was reported on distant eastern and western flanks of Mosul on Tuesday, as Kurdish peshmerga forces supported by U.S. surveillance aircraft pushed the first counteroffensive back toward the strategic city.
Appearing at the same 3 1/2-hour hearing, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel outlined a military plan far broader than previously acknowledged for eventual cross-border U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State strongholds and other targets in Syria.
Hagel said the Pentagon is planning "targeted actions against ISIL safe havens in Syria, including its command and control, logistics capabilities and infrastructure."
Hagel warned that the campaign "will not be an easy or a brief effort. It is complicated. We are at war with ISIL, as we are with Al Qaeda."
Both men warned that the U.S. effort is open-ended.
"This will require a sustained effort over an extended period of time," Dempsey said. "It's a generational problem and we should expect that our enemies will adapt their tactics as we adjust our approach."
They were interrupted several times by protesters from Code Pink, an antiwar group, who shouted and waved signs opposing the U.S. role.
In separate closed-door briefings Tuesday on Capitol Hill, House members shared concerns about the White House plan to train and arm 5,000 anti-Assad Syrian fighters over the next year at bases in Saudi Arabia.
Lawmakers worried whether the opposition fighters would be appropriately vetted and could survive against the larger and better-armed Islamic State forces, and whether any U.S. military equipment would wind up in enemy hands.
But leaders from both parties expressed confidence that the House will vote Wednesday in favor of the president's request to support arming and training the "moderate" militant fighters.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said he expected the measure to pass the GOP-controlled House. "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," he said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he expected the measure to pass the Democratic-controlled Senate after the House vote.
Nevertheless, Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said Dempsey's use of what Himes called the "G-word," referring to ground troops, had injected uncertainty. "That's going to change the dynamic a little bit for some people," he said.
Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said Dempsey "was referring to a hypothetical scenario in which there might be a future situation in which he might make a tactical recommendation to the president as it relates to the use of ground troops."
Obama, Earnest said, "does not believe that it would be in the best interest of our national security to deploy American ground troops in a combat role in Iraq and Syria. That policy has not changed."
Administration officials say the 1,600 U.S. military advisors in Baghdad and Irbil will help Iraqi commanders plan campaigns, arrange for logistics support, and coordinate coalition activities. White House officials have not ruled out the possibility that the U.S. force may grow.
Dempsey's appearance with Hagel was the first of several public hearings this week as the administration moves to develop and explain its strategy.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry will testify before the Senate and House foreign affairs committees on Wednesday and Thursday. Jeh Johnson, the secretary of Homeland Security, will appear before the House Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday, and the House Intelligence Committee will have a rare open session Thursday.
Obama met Tuesday at the White House with Gen. John R. Allen, the special envoy to coordinate the emerging coalition against Islamic State, and his deputy, Brett McGurk. Obama later flew to Tampa, Fla., where he will be briefed Wednesday by Gen. Austin, head of U.S. Central Command.
The Pentagon has successfully conducted 168 airstrikes against Islamic State positions and convoys in Iraq since Aug. 8. It has not yet launched attacks against the militants in Syria.
U.S. officials separately confirmed that Islamic State militants have used Internet chat rooms and social media websites to discuss illegally crossing America's Southwest border. But a senior Homeland Security Department official said Tuesday that U.S. intelligence agencies have seen no evidence of efforts to do so.
"There is no credible information that there is an active plot to traverse the Southwest border now," Alejandro Mayorkas, deputy secretary of Homeland Security, said in a speech at the National Press Club.
John P. Wagner, head of field operations for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, told a House subcommittee on Sept. 10 that border agents sometimes find people entering illegally whose names are on terrorism watch lists, but the number is tiny compared with those caught attempting to enter the country on commercial flights.
"You're talking tens versus thousands," he said.
Times staff writers Lisa Mascaro and Kathleen Hennessey in Washington and Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut contributed to this report.