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Dempsey leaves open possibility of U.S. military advisors in Iraq joining combat

The use of American troops to battle the Islamic State has not been ruled out, according to Gen. Martin Dempsey during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel underscored that the U.S. air campaign will not be limited to Iraq, prompting questions about attacks from the Syrian government. The NewsHour's Quinn Bowman reports.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    We turn now to Iraq and Syria.

    The Obama administration's plan of attack against the Islamic State group was under examination today in the Senate Armed Services Committee.

    That's where the "NewsHour"'s Quinn Bowman picks up the story.

  • QUINN BOWMAN:

    The hearing with the Pentagon's top two officials quickly turned to a key question: whether U.S. troops will get into ground combat in Iraq.

    President Obama has repeatedly said the answer is no. But Army General Martin Dempsey, chair of the Joint Chiefs, left open the role of several hundred Americans already in Iraq. They're now advising Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces.

    GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff: If we reach the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific ISIL targets, I will recommend that to the president.

  • QUINN BOWMAN:

    Dempsey elaborated under questioning from Democrat Jack Reed of Rhode Island and cited a potential operation to recapture Iraq's second largest city.

  • GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY:

    If the Iraqi security forces and the Pesh were at some point ready to retake Mosul, a mission that I would find to be extraordinarily complex, it could very well be part of that particular mission to provide close combat advising or accompanying for that mission.

  • QUINN BOWMAN:

    The general also said the president has told him to come back on a case-by-case basis to reevaluate the need for any U.S. ground forces.

    And Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel underscored the U.S. air campaign against Islamic State, or ISIL, will not be limited to Iraq alone.

  • CHUCK HAGEL, Defense Secretary:

    Because ISIL operates freely across the Iraqi-Syrian border and maintains a safe haven in Syria, our actions will not be restrained by a broader — by a border in name only.

  • QUINN BOWMAN:

    There were reports today that the U.S. has warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad not to let his military fire on U.S. planes conducting strikes inside Syria.

    Both Hagel and Dempsey detailed plans to vet, train and equip 5,000 fighters a year for the Free Syrian Army to confront Islamic State forces. U.S. intelligence estimates the militants have 30,000 or more fighters.

    At the hearing, Arizona Republican John McCain asked what happens if Syrian jets and helicopters attack the U.S.-and-allied-trained force.

  • CHUCK HAGEL:

    Any attack on those that we have trained who are supporting us, we will help them.

  • QUINN BOWMAN:

    But General Dempsey drew McCain's fire when he said Western-backed fighters need to focus on Islamic State militants, not on Assad's army.

  • GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY:

    I think what you're hearing us express is an ISIL-first strategy.

    SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, (R), Arizona: You don't think that the Free Syrian Army is going to fight against Bashar Assad, who has been decimating them?

  • GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY:

    What I believe, Senator, is that as we train them and develop a military chain of command linked to a political structure, that we can establish objectives that defer that challenge into the future. We do not have to deal with it now.

  • SEN. JOHN MCCAIN:

    That's a fundamental misunderstanding of the entire concept and motivation of the Free Syrian Army.

  • QUINN BOWMAN:

    The U.S. also got a reminder today that it may be fighting not only Islamic State and potentially Syrian forces, but a wider array of extremist groups.

    Two al-Qaida groups in the Arabian Peninsula and in North Africa issued an unusual joint appeal to rival Islamist factions in Iraq and Syria. It urged the Islamic State and the al-Nusra Front to unite against the U.S. coalition.

    "Stop the campaigns of mutual slander," the statement said, "and direct the honest pens and swords against the head of infidelity, America, and its unjust, aggressive alliance."

    But at the United Nations, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon lent his conditional support to the effort.

  • BAN KI-MOON, Secretary-General, United Nations:

    I therefore urge the international community and those with the means to act decisively and after sober reflection. It is critical to keep at the forefront the protection of civilians.

  • QUINN BOWMAN:

    The man who will manage the anti-Islamic State coalition, retired General John Allen, was introduced at the White House today. He's the former overall commander in Afghanistan.

    President Obama has not asked Congress to authorize the overall operation. But House Speaker John Boehner suggested that remains subject to change.

    REP. JOHN BOEHNER, Speaker of the House: It doesn't preclude us from revisiting the issue of a broader use of military force. As you heard me say last week, I believe that it's important, frankly, for the Congress to speak on this issue, and when we get to that point, we will.

  • QUINN BOWMAN:

    Tomorrow, Secretary of State John Kerry outlines the coalition-building effort at another Senate hearing. The president visits leaders at U.S. Central Command in Tampa, who will oversee operations against Islamic State forces.

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