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U.S. Would Consider 'Modest' Force For Complex Iraq Operations

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel testifies on Capitol Hill Thursday. Evan Vucci/AP hide caption

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Evan Vucci/AP

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel testifies on Capitol Hill Thursday.

Evan Vucci/AP

Updated at 12:55 pm. EST

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the top U.S. military commander, told lawmakers today that the U.S. would consider sending some U.S. troops to fight alongside Iraqi forces in more complex missions against militants of the Islamic State.

He told the House Armed Services Committee that though Iraqi forces were tackling the militants, operations such as retaking the city of Mosul or restoring the border with Syria could need help.

"I'm not predicting at this point that I would recommend that those forces in Mosul and along the border would need to be accompanied by U.S. forces, but we're certainly considering it," he said.

Dempsey said any increase to the modest U.S. force already in Iraq would also be "modest."

Earlier, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the panel the U.S. and its allies have made progress against the Islamic State, but the campaign against the militant group in Iraq and Syria "will be a long and difficult struggle" that could last years.

Hagel said that since he last appeared before the panel in September, the U.S. and its allies had made progress against the Islamic State, but "ISIL continues to represent a serious threat to American interests, our allies, and the Middle East and wields influence over a broad swath of territory in western and northern Iraq and eastern Syria."

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ISIL refers to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, another name for the Islamic State. The group is also sometimes called ISIS, for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Dempsey and Hagel's remarks before the House Armed Services Committee come days after President Obama asked Congress for $5.6 billion to fight the Islamic State. The White House announced Nov. 7 that it was sending up to 1,500 more military personnel to Iraq to "train, advise, and assist Iraqi Security Forces, including Kurdish forces." That's in addition to the 1,400 troops already in Iraq in an advisory capacity.

But lawmakers at the hearing were skeptical of that strategy.

Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., the panel's chairman, said "limiting our advisers to headquarters buildings will not help newly trained Iraqi and Syrian opposition forces hold terrain, much less defeat ISIL in the field. Yet the president has doubled down on his policy of 'no boots on the ground,' despite any advice you give him."

Hagel also said the U.S. and its allies have carried out more than 130 airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. He added that opposition to the Islamic State must be built "so that local forces can take the fight to ISIL ... and ultimately defeat it."

Hagel did note, however, that while the coalition actions against the Islamic State had the support of the Iraqi government and its forces, along with the Kurdish Peshmerga, the effort in Syria was limited by the lack of a government partner. The U.S. says Syrian President Bashar Assad has lost legitimacy to govern, and Hagel noted "there is no purely military solution to the conflict in Syria."

"Alongside our efforts to isolate and sanction the Assad regime, our strategy is to strengthen the moderate opposition to the point where they can, first, defend and control their local areas; next, go on the offense and take back areas that have been lost to ISIL; and ultimately, as their capabilities and leverage develop, to create conditions for a political settlement in Syria," he said.

Congress must decide next month whether to reauthorize the training and equipping of moderate Syrian rebels.