Gen. Martin Dempsey says U.S. military advisers could join Iraqi ground units on the front lines against Islamic extremists if the Baghdad government shows it can unite to hold the Iraqi state together.
However, U.S. military support was conditional upon the Iraqis solving the sectarian disputes that threaten to splinter the nation, Dempsey said.
Forming a unity government was the key to giving the U.S. a reliable partner against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), said Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Dempsey said U.S. support could also include limited air strikes that would seek to distinguish between ISIL fighters and the Sunni tribes north and west of Baghdad.
"If we can get a credible partner [in Iraq], then I think we can do any number of things," Dempsey said at the Aspen Security Forum last week. "Whether we have credible, reliable partners in Iraq remains to be seen."
If viable partners can be found, "we can put advisers on the ground who know how to go far enough forward to provide intelligence, to provide planning expertise, to use close air support if we take a decision to provide close air support," Dempsey said.
The air support would likely come from the carrier George H.W. Bush, which has been in the Persian Gulf for more than a month with six other U.S. warships. The group of ships includes the amphibious assault ship Bataan with 1,000 Marines aboard.
President Obama has authorized up to 300 special operations troops to be in Iraq to operate out of Joint Operations Center in Baghdad and in Irbil, capital of the northern Kurdish region.
Earlier this month, the special operations troops forwarded an assessment on the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces. Dempsey said the Pentagon and the White House were now considering the "options" for U.S. support.
Congress was pressing to have a say on the options for military force in Iraq. Last Friday, the House passed a resolution calling upon Obama to seek permission from Congress before using military force in Iraq.
The resolution passed by a vote of 370-40 and limited the president from deploying U.S. troops in a "sustained combat role in Iraq." It was unclear whether the resolution would be taken up by the Senate.
In a separate appearance at the Aspen forum, Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army's chief of staff, echoed Dempsey on the requirement for the Iraqis to form a unity government before U.S. support can flow.
Odierno blamed the collapse of Iraqi forces in the initial ISIL advance on the "politicization" of the Iraqi army along sectarian lines.
"They didn't fight," Odierno said of the Iraqi troops, because of a "complete lack of trust and confidence, and frankly loyalty, in their commanders."
Without a unity government, "it will continue to disintegrate" in Iraq, Odierno said. "If you don't get that, no national force will solve the problem."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@monster.com.