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American ground troops against ISIL? Top U.S. military officer raises specter

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U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (L) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill September 16, 2014 in Washington, DC. Senators questioned the top military and civilian leaders about the threat posed by the terrorist group calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or ISIL. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON (CNN) — America’s top military officer raised the specter Tuesday of U.S. troops in Iraq taking on a combat role to fight ISIL, a position that was quickly knocked down by the White House.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that it was possible that U.S. troops advising and assisting Iraq’s military could be deployed to fight.

“To be clear, 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,” Dempsey said during testimony before the committee.

Dempsey’s comments, which he made several times under questioning by senators, contradicts President Barack Obama’s promise that the campaign to defeat and destroy the terrorist group that calls itself the Islamic State would not include American “boots on the ground.”

The contradiction quickly raised question for the White House: How is serving as “close combat advisers” — in Dempsey’s words — not a combat role?

Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, pressed Dempsey on the issue at one point in the hearing, asking if pilots dropping bombs in Iraq were part of a combat mission and if the U.S. would rescue any pilots shot down.

Dempsey responded “Yes and yes.”

The Obama administration moved quickly to tamp down any suggestion that the United States would deploy combat troops.

Even Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who was seated next to Dempsey at the Senate committee hearing, repeated the president’s promise.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest reiterated Obama’s position, telling reporters that U.S. troops — some 1,600 — in Iraq were serving in advise-and-assist roles, staffing the joint operation centers and defending the Embassy in Baghdad and the consulate in Irbil.

“What he’s been very specific and precise about is that he will not deploy ground troops in a combat role into Iraq or Syria,” Earnest told reporters.

The Pentagon’s spokesman, Rear Adm. John Kirby, characterized Dempsey’s statement as a hypothetical, saying that the chairman was speaking about his “best military advice” should U.S. troops in Iraq need to act in an advise-and-assist role with “lower level units.”

“If he felt that the strategy as it was being proposed and executed was failing that he would not hesitate to change his advice to the commander in chief about maybe putting advisers in lower level units out there,” Kirby said.

“But he also said that he supports the strategy that we are executing right now, and he also said that he doesn’t believe we are at that stage right now.”

Even so, when pushed during his testimony to expand on his statement, Dempsey told the senators that if the current approach fails, he may recommend the use of ground troops.

The committee hearing came as the House prepares to vote to give the president authorization to arm and train moderate Syrian rebel groups that have been vetted. A Senate vote on the measure would follow.

The Obama administration has, however, ruled out putting U.S. military advisers on the ground in Syria.

Early in his testimony, Dempsey also seemed to lay out a new version of the administration’s mission, saying it was to “destroy” ISIL in Iraq and to “disrupt” it in Syria.

The hearing was interrupted several times by antiwar protesters from the groups Code Pink and Popular Resistance, each of whom chanted and held up signs until they were ejected.

“There is no military solution,” one woman chanted. “America does not want war.”

The latest CNN/ORC poll shows the American public is worried about the threat of ISIL, with 87% saying they are “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about the group. About three-quarters of Americans support U.S. airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq and in Syria, and 38% even support putting U.S. ground troops in Iraq or Syria.

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