The United States plans to strike the Islamic State group in its Syrian strongholds and could yet send military advisors into combat alongside Iraqi troops, American commanders says.
The White House on Tuesday scrambled to play down talk of US ground troops joining the battle after top US officer General Martin Dempsey said they could “provide close-combat advising” to Iraqi forces.
As chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Dempsey is President Barack Obama’s chief military advisor, but the White House insisted the idea of US troops in battle was a “purely hypothetical scenario”.
Military leaders warned of a further escalation in their battle against the jihadists just as two branches of the rival al-Qaeda group called for a united front against the war coalition Washington is building.
US Central Command said that, in addition to bombing IS fighters threatening the northern city of Arbil, strikes had destroyed a guerilla ground unit and two supply boats southwest of Baghdad.
The campaign bore fruit on Tuesday when Kurdish peshmerga fighters – who now receive Western military supplies and US air support – retook seven Christian villages overrun by jihadists.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told US politicians that plans are being laid to hit targets in Syria, where the IS group is holding Western hostages and has a stronghold in the city of Raqa.
“This plan includes targeted actions against ISIL safe havens in Syria, including its command and control, logistics capabilities, and infrastructure,” Hagel told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Dempsey went further than any US official had gone before in admitting that the military advisors that Obama has dispatched to bolster Iraqi forces could get drawn into combat.
“To be clear, if we reach the point where I believe our advisors should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific ISIL targets, I will recommend that to the president,” Dempsey said.
Dempsey stressed the advisors are “very much in a combat-advisory role” and that there is “no intention” at the moment for them to engage in combat: “I don’t see it to be necessary right now.”
But he said if there were an “extraordinarily complex” operation planned by Iraqi forces then advisors could head to the front.