America's top general has said that US ground troops could be needed to battle Islamic State militants in Iraq, an assertion which — coming less than a week after Washington doubled its personnel in the country — has led some to suspect that a creep into a combat role is inevitable.
However, Gen. Martin Dempsey's remarks come at a time when public opinion is increasingly in favour of increased military action against the jihadists.
Dempsey, who is chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday that American forces could be required to go into battle alongside the Iraqi armed forces during large complex operations to regain territory seized by IS, such as the country's second city of Mosul or the area around the Iraqi border with Syria.
"I'm not predicting at this point that those forces in Mosul and along the border would need to be accompanied by US forces, but we're certainly considering it," he said.
There are currently 1,400 American personnel in Iraq, however they have only operated in an advisory capacity and are located in more stable parts of the country. Last week President Barack Obama authorized the deployment of an additional 1,500 troops — also to act in an advisory role — by the beginning of 2015. Some will be stationed in areas with fierce fighting, including the mainly IS-controlled province of Anbar.
Ending the Iraq war was a key component of Obama's foreign policy and he has repeatedly stressed that US soldiers would not return to take part in ground operations there. More recently, the president seemed to be relying on hopes that the new Shiite-led Iraqi government would unite the country's Sunni and Kurdish minorities to the point that they could effectively take on IS themselves.
However six weeks ago, Dempsey raised the possibility of US advisers embedding with Iraqi troops while speaking to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
On Thursday, the general described establishing a "modest footprint" in Iraq with US troops focused on developing, assisting and advising local forces from headquarters. Expansion, if any took place, would be "equally modest," he said, adding: "I just don't see it in our interest to take this fight on ourselves with a large military contingent."
However, if the US assumptions of the Iraqi government being inclusive and security forces being willing and able to kick IS out of Anbar and Ninewah provinces did not come to pass, Dempsey said he would adjust his recommendations.
Such an adjustment could prove to be more popular than it would have been earlier this year. In June, just after IS seized control of large parts of northern Iraq, Gallup asked Americans about proposed military action to "aid the Iraqi government in fighting militants there." Just 39 percent of Americans were in favor of direct US action and 54 percent opposed.
However, IS have since expanded further, and, perhaps more significantly, murdered US journalists. 91 percent of Americans said the group was "a threat to the vital interests of the United States" in a September Washington Post-ABC News poll.
By October, a CBS survey found that 71 percent of Americans backed continued airstrikes on IS targets, while 47 percent supported deploying US troops in Iraq to combat IS. Significantly, the latter figure was up from 39 percent the previous month.
Public approval for Obama is stuck around 40 percent and the Demcrats a record low 36 percent, but if the president were to move some American troops into combat roles, the decision might receive significant public backing.
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