Top U.S. Officials Consider Bigger American Role in Iraq

U.S. troops could help direct airstrikes against Islamic State militants

By Dion Nissenbaum

June 17, 2015

WASHINGTON--The nation's top defense officials left open the possibility on Wednesday that the U.S. military may play a more active role in the fight against Islamic State extremists, by joining Iraqi forces on the front lines to help direct airstrikes.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that they might support the higher-risk role for U.S. troops in Iraq, a move that has been under discussion but that President Barack Obama has so far resisted.

Gen. Dempsey told lawmakers that he sees value in helping Iraqi forces when they go on the offensive to retake key targets, including oil refineries and major cities, including Mosul, which Islamic State forces have controlled for more than a year.

But Mr. Carter and Gen. Dempsey repeatedly told lawmakers that it would be a mistake for the U.S. to send thousands more American troops to replace faltering Iraqi forces in the fight.

"Putting U.S. forces on the ground as a substitute for local forces will not produce enduring results," Mr. Carter told the House Armed Services Committee. "I would not recommend that we put U.S. forces in harm's way simply to stiffen the spine of local forces."

But Gen. Dempsey, the top U.S. commander, suggested the time may be coming for U.S. troops to take a more hands-on role in directing the fight against Islamic State, known also as ISIS or ISIL. The general said he was open to using U.S. forces to militarily aid Iraqi forces "when they go on the offensive and there is a strategic target and we want to make sure they succeed."

That view was echoed by Mr. Carter, who said the first step is for the Iraqi government to rebuild its military so that it can take on the fight.

Assigning U.S. forces to targeting duty would signal a shift in military tactics and put Americans at greater risk of being drawn into direct firefights with Islamic State militants. Mr. Obama and key administration officials have sought to minimize the U.S. military role in Iraq after pulling the last combat troops out in 2011, part of the president's campaign pledge.

Some lawmakers from both parties have pushed for Congress to debate and vote on the use of ground troops in Iraq and Syria as part of the U.S. fight against Islamic State militants. Democrats have led the effort, joined by some Republicans, including Republican presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.

Wednesday's comments from Gen. Dempsey and Mr. Carter came in response to questions posed by lawmakers, and offered the latest indication that the U.S. military is preparing for a more active role in Iraq. Republican lawmakers and some U.S. military officials have pushed for a more aggressive U.S. approach.

Gen. Dempsey and Mr. Carter both expressed frustrations on Wednesday with Iraqi leaders for the slow pace of training Iraqi soldiers. While the U.S. had hoped to train 24,000 Iraqi troops by this fall, the program has been able to train only 7,000, Mr. Carter said.

To address the sluggish training program, Mr. Obama approved a new plan last week to send 450 more U.S. troops to Iraq to set up a new training base in an Islamic State stronghold near Baghdad. That decision followed the surprise collapse of Iraqi forces defending Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, which was seized by Islamic State fighters last month.

"What we saw in Ramadi last month was deeply disappointing and illustrated the importance of a capable and motivated Iraqi ground force," said Mr. Carter, who conceded that the president's strategy needed to be refined.

"In our meetings at both the Pentagon and the White House, we determined that while we had the right strategic framework, execution of the campaign can and should be strengthened, especially on the ground," he said.

As part of that effort, American troops hope to train thousands of Sunni fighters to help push Islamic State forces out of Ramadi. U.S. advisers will help Iraqi officers plan the counteroffensive in Anbar province, and the U.S. is looking at setting up more bases across Iraq.

At present, the U.S. has about 3,100 troops in Iraq, primarily advising Iraqi officers at secure bases, helping coordinate airstrikes, and training Iraqi troops.

The comments by Mr. Carter and Gen. Dempsey came during a lengthy hearing in Congress, where lawmakers from both parties expressed concern about the U.S. strategy against Islamic State.

At the hearing, Gen. Dempsey and Mr. Carter also hailed the recent advances by Kurdish forces in Tal Abyad, the Syrian town on the Turkish border that Islamic State abandoned in the face of Kurdish fighters and a small number of U.S. airstrikes. The Kurdish units provide the kind of local partner forces the U.S. is seeking across the region.

"The Kurdish forces are what we aspire to," Mr. Carter said.

Write to Dion Nissenbaum at