More U.S., coalition forces likely needed to fight ISIS, top commander says

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Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, the new commander general of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, attends a news conference at the U.S. Embassy in the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq in October 2015. Photo by Khalid Mohammed/Reuters

Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, the new commander general of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, attends a news conference at the U.S. Embassy in the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq in October 2015. Photo by Khalid Mohammed/Reuters

WASHINGTON — There is a “good potential” that more U.S. and coalition forces will be needed to fight the Islamic State group, the top commander of military operations in Iraq and Syria said Monday.

Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland told Pentagon reporters that he is working on ways to increase pressure on the Islamic State militants, and some options may require more troops on the ground to assist local Iraqi or Syrian forces. He would not detail whether those personnel would be trainers or combat troops.

“I’d like the enemy to find out about it for the first time when the area around them is going up in smoke,” said MacFarland, adding that he is reviewing what the right mix of new forces and capabilities should be and is in discussions with coalition partners and the government of Iraq.

His comments came as the coalition is working through plans for the battle to retake the key northern Iraqi city of Mosul and the Syrian city of Raqqa, which IS uses as a headquarters.

He added that although Iraqi leaders didn’t accept the offer of U.S. Apache helicopters during the ultimately successful fight for Ramadi, they may decide to use the aircraft in a later battle.

Speaking by teleconference from Iraq, MacFarland was asked whether the U.S. should use carpet bombing strikes against Islamic State militants, a tactic proposed by Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz. He said that such indiscriminate bombing — which would kill innocent civilians as well as enemy combatants — is “inconsistent with our values” as a nation. The U.S., he said, has a guiding set of principles that govern how American forces conduct themselves on the battlefield.

“Right now we have the moral high ground and that’s where we’re going to stay,” he said, noting reports that Russia has conducted carpet bombing in Syria.

He also was asked about recent airstrikes that targeted Islamic State banks and money caches and may have killed civilians. MacFarland said there may have been three people killed in the bank strikes. But he added that they were Islamic State members and an enemy doesn’t necessarily have to have a loaded gun next to them in order to be an enemy.

He said the bank strikes were also done at times when loss of life would be minimal.


More broadly, MacFarland said the victory by Iraqi security forces in Ramadi was a turning point in the campaign, but he predicted more difficult fighting ahead.

MacFarland was asked about the visit to Syria by several top U.S. officials, but he declined to provide any details about their protection while on the ground in Kobani. President Barack Obama’s envoy to the coalition, Brett McGurk, was in Syria along with U.S. Lt. Gen. Raymond “Tony” Thomas, the head of U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, and Marcel Lettre, the defense undersecretary for intelligence.

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