- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Contradicting what his top military adviser said just a day earlier, President Obama personally assured U.S. soldiers Wednesday that he will not send them into ground combat against terrorists in Iraq and Syria, the latest example of the president’s direct involvement in setting the rules for the new war.

“As your commander in chief, I will not commit you and the rest of our armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq,” Mr. Obama told about 1,200 troops at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, home of the U.S. Central Command. “The American forces that have been deployed to Iraq do not and will not have a combat mission.”

His assurances came one day after Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress that he would recommend using special operations forces for closer support of Iraqi troops if he determined they were needed in the fight against Islamic State militants. White House aides, mindful of Democrats who are worried about “mission creep,” later said Gen. Dempsey was speaking of “hypothetical” situations and the president’s comments were not intended as a rebuke of his military chief.

“If Gen. Dempsey determines that it may be necessary to forward-deploy some of the American advisers, then he will bring that option to the president,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest.” And the president said he would consider it on a case-by-case basis. But what he would not consider is a combat role for our troops.”

In Baghdad, Iraq’s new prime minister strongly rejected the idea of the U.S. or other nations sending ground forces to his country to help fight the Islamic State group, saying that foreign troops are “out of the question.”

“We don’t want them,” Haider al-Abadi told The Associated Press in his first extended interview on the conflict since taking office. “We won’t allow them. Full stop.”


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Mr. al-Abadi also said the Iraqi military, which broke and ran when confronted by Islamic State forces earlier this summer, will choose and approve targets, and that the U.S. will not take action without consulting with Baghdad first. Failure to do so, he warned, risks causing civilian casualties as happened in Pakistan and Yemen, where the U.S. has conducted drone strikes for years.

Mr. Obama, who is trying to convince the public that his war will be different from the costly eight-year Iraqi conflict begun under President George W. Bush, said U.S. troops “will support Iraqi forces on the ground as they fight for their own country against these terrorists.” And while his aides call it a “war,” Mr. Obama again avoided the word, instead calling the effort “a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy.”

The campaign will include an escalation of U.S. airstrikes against the militants in Iraq, and extending those air attacks into neighboring Syria in support of U.S.-armed Syrian rebels who are also battling the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

But Mr. Obama’s former defense secretary, Bob Gates, said Wednesday that the effort won’t succeed without ground troops.

“The reality is, they’re not going to be able to be successful against [the Islamic State] strictly from the air, or strictly depending on the Iraqi forces, or the [Kurdish] peshmerga, or the Sunni tribes acting on their own,” Mr. Gates told CBS News. “So there will be boots on the ground if there’s to be any hope of success in the strategy. And I think that by continuing to repeat that [the U.S. won’t deploy combat troops], the president, in effect, traps himself.”

The president said his plan will be “a true team effort,” with more than 40 nations involved in a coalition. Other than Iraq, however, there are no commitments from other countries to supply ground troops.

“There are definite flaws in the strategy,” said Peter Brookes, a former Pentagon official in the Bush administration and an analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “The coalition is more of a mirage than a reality. The president gave us a skeleton of a strategy, and now he’s trying to flesh it out.”

Mr. Obama’s insistence on no American ground combat troops is the most visible example of his determination to restrict the rules of engagement for the mission, which began Aug. 8. Aides say the president has also been involved in reviewing targets for airstrikes brought to him by military planners.

Mr. Brookes said it’s understandable for a president to be heavily involved in military strategy at the start of a war.

“It’s not unusual for a president to want to have a high level of visibility on the issues as you move forward, especially since the president is very reluctant here,” Mr. Brookes said. “… At this point I don’t see it as a particularly high level of micromanagement, especially at the early stages of a campaign.”

Mr. al-Abadi also appeared to be laying down his own markers over the rules of engagement.

He urged the international community to expand its campaign against the extremists to neighboring Syria, noting that militants coming under pressure in Iraq are simply retreating back to safe havens inside Syria.

“The fight will go on unless ISIL is hit in Syria,” Mr. al-Abadi said, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “This is the responsibility of the international community — on top of them the United States government — to do something about ISIL in Syria.”

This article is based in part on wire-service reports.

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