NAPLES, Italy — The Pentagon's top general said Thursday the U.S. military's reach could extend even further into Iraq if the anti-Islamic State campaign gains momentum, and he held out the possibility of eventually recommending to President Barack Obama that U.S. troops take on the riskier role of calling in airstrikes.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the White House's announcement Wednesday that up to 450 more U.S. troops would be sent to Iraq to invigorate its flagging campaign against the Islamic State is a natural extension of U.S. assistance. He said the support hub the troops will set up will not produce instant results but may serve as a model to be replicated elsewhere in Iraq, possibly requiring even more U.S. troops.
"The campaign is built on establishing these lily pads, if you will, that allow us to continue to encourage the Iraqi security forces (to move) forward, and as they go forward there may be a point where" additional such U.S. hubs are called for to enable the Iraqis to succeed, he told reporters traveling with him to Naples, where he spoke to American troops and conferred with their commanders.
"Sure, we're looking all the time at whether there might be additional sites necessary. It's another one of the options that we're considering." He added: "It's very practical, looking at geographic locations, road networks, airfields, places where we can actually establish these hubs."
The Pentagon said Thursday that the U.S. has spent more than $2.7 billion on the war against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria since bombings began last August, and the average daily cost is now more than $9 million.
Dempsey said he has not recommended putting U.S. troops closer to the battlefield to call in airstrikes — a step that critics of the current U.S. approach say is overdue, even though it raises the risk of American casualties. But he pointedly held out the possibility that it may become necessary.
"We continue to plan for and ensure that that option is available should it be necessary to have to ensure Iraqi success," he said, adding, "We may reach that point."
Asked why he has not yet recommended it, Dempsey said he believes it could backfire if not done for the right reasons.
"For discreet, limited offensive operations where Iraq security forces have the momentum I think there is a possibility we'll do that at some point," he said. "But as I've said, I just don't think we're there yet."
Dempsey said the use of American troops to call in airstrikes could even happen in the push to retake Ramadi, a city lost by Iraqi forces who had not received U.S. training, or in a counteroffensive to oust the Islamic State from other key cities like Mosul or Beiji. But to use U.S. troops in that role on a regular basis would discourage the Iraqis "from really getting serious about restoring their own security," he said.
Dempsey spoke the day after the Obama administration announced that U.S. troops will establish a new base at al-Taqqadum, situated between Ramadi and Fallujah, both Islamic State-controlled cities in Anbar province, to advise Iraqi forces and help mobilize and integrate a larger number of Sunni tribal fighters.
"Is this a game changer? ... No. It's an extension of an existing campaign that makes the campaign more credible. The game changers are going to have to come from the Iraqi government themselves," Dempsey said. He did not predict the Iraqis will succeed but said they deserve more time.
"I just don't think we should be giving up on the government of Iraq's ability to conduct this campaign, with our help," he said.
Dempsey said the mission for U.S. forces at al-Taqqadum "first and foremost" will be to assist the Iraqi military in organizing and executing its counteroffensive, while encouraging greater Sunni involvement.
Integrating into the fight the Sunni tribes — who have either been sidelined by the Shiite-led central government in Baghdad or unwilling to join — is seen as crucial to driving the Islamic State out of the Sunni-majority areas like Anbar.
Dempsey did not foresee establishing more U.S. hubs in Anbar beyond the one announced Wednesday. He said that as the Iraqi campaign advances, however, another could be established along the route between Baghdad and the northern city of Mosul, which has been under Islamic State control for a year. Prospects for launching a counteroffensive in Mosul this year, however, seem dim, given the Iraqi army's recent defeat in Ramadi.
Dempsey refused to offer a timeline for Iraq to make a push for Ramadi, but his description of the plan for al-Taqqadum indicated the big counter-attack is not imminent.
"It will take several weeks" for the U.S. to establish its base at al-Taqqadum, he said.
It will include not only U.S. military advisers but also personnel to provide basic supplies and to protect the base. More than half of the 450 troops will be devoted to the "force protection" mission, and only about 50 will actually be advising Iraqis or conducting outreach.
The first of the U.S. forces will begin moving into al-Taqqadum in the coming days, but it will take up to two months for all of the more than 500 troops slated to go there, to arrive. The first wave will be the nearly 100 troops who are already in Iraq, including about two dozen Army special forces who will conduct the outreach to the Sunnis, according to a U.S. official who was not authorized to discuss detailed troop movements publicly and thus spoke on condition of anonymity.
Army Col. Steve Warren also said that U.S. forces are currently providing advanced training in countering explosives and other high-level combat tactics to Iraqi troops at Anbar's al-Asad Air Base as part of the preparation to retake Ramadi.
Dempsey suggested that the U.S. is pushing for a deliberate, comprehensive Iraqi approach to retaking cities like Ramadi. Winning militarily will not be enough, he said.
"The effort to reclaim Ramadi and eventually Mosul and other parts of Iraq also depend on the ability of the Iraqi government to have in place a plan to reconstruct the liberated areas, because if they don't, you know ISIL can be swept aside but those underlying issues that have allowed them to swim freely in this population will remain. And then, as I've said before, they'll be back at it two years from now."
The government in Baghdad also has to achieve a greater degree of Sunni-Shiite reconciliation in order to succeed, Dempsey said.
"It just has to have that."
Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report from Washington.