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Martin Dempsey: US ground troops are possible

Meanwhile, Hagel and Dempsey were met with protesters chanting "No more war!" before they were grilled by a Senate committee.

America’s top military adviser Martin Dempsey says sending American ground troops to combat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria isn’t out of the question, especially if President Obama’s plan to combat the terrorist group fails.

“If we reach the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific [Islamic State] targets, I’ll recommend that to the president,” said Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a hearing held Tuesday by the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Dempsey quickly added that his “view at this point is that this coalition is the appropriate way forward and I believe that will prove true” but “if it fails to be true and there are threats to the United States then I, of course, would go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of U.S. military ground forces.” 

State Department spokesperson Marie Harf said later Tuesday that "there is no intention" for any U.S. ground troops to participate in combat. Instead, they are in a "combat advisory role," she said.

"The president has been very clear we will not have troops on the ground in combat roles, period," Harf told reporters.

Obama has authorized airstrikes on ISIS – also known as ISIL -- in Iraq and has stressed that the effort “will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.” The president has also requested that Congress approve legislation that would train and equip Syrian rebels to fight the terror group, which released a propaganda video over the weekend showing the execution of British aid worker David Cawthorne Haines—the latest gruesome attack in a troubling string of beheadings by ISIS. 

The House of Representatives started debate Tuesday on the measure to arm the Syrian opposition and is expected to vote on legislation as early as Wednesday. While leaders of both parties back Obama’s strategy to target the terrorist group, some lawmakers have expressed concerns that the weapons could end up in the hands of ISIS. Others want to take stronger action and some are concerned about the U.S. getting embroiled in another war.

Obama and White House officials have escalated their outreach efforts ahead of the vote. Obama himself has made more than a dozen calls, including to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California, and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, Democrat of Maryland, NBC News' Frank Thorp reported. 

The U.S. Central Command announced that the American military conducted five airstrikes in Iraq on Monday and Tuesday, including three strikes southwest of Baghdad. The strikes in Baghdad are the first the U.S. has taken as part of the expanded efforts to destroy ISIS. A defense official told NBC News that the airstrike Monday near Baghdad was more offensive in nature and was the result of any advance of ISIS toward the Iraqi capital. CENTCOM has launched a total of 167 airstrikes -- hitting ISIS trucks, anti-aircraft artillery pieces, ground units and boats -- in Iraq since the U.S. intervened on Aug. 7.

President Obama arrived in Tampa on Tuesday night in advance of his planned visit Wednesday to CENTCOM at MacDill Air Force Base, where he will be briefed on military battle plans to strike at ISIS in Iraq and possibly Syria.

White House officials have said that “several” Arab countries have committed to carrying out airstrikes on against ISIS, although officials would not identify which countries extended an offer.

Both Dempsey and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, meanwhile, faced tough questioning Tuesday from the Senate panel on Obama’s plan to “degrade and destroy” ISIS.  

Hagel defended Obama’s strategy, warning, however, that the battle will not be “easy or brief.” He said the intelligence community has not detected a specific threat against the U.S., but he said if ISIS is left unchecked, the group “will directly threaten our homeland and our allies” and already has “global aspirations.”

At one point in the hearing, Republcian Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas asked Dempsey what a worst-case scenario would look like. Dempsey said a combination of radical ideology and an inequitable distribution of resources would “almost surely trigger a confrontation with Iran into which the rest of the world would be drawn into for obvious reasons.”

Separately, the committee’s top Republican, Sen. Inhofe of Oklahoma, criticized Obama, insisting he has downplayed the terrorist group’s threat to the U.S. “It will take an army to beat an army,” said Inhofe. 

“I’m not advocating for an army division or combat elements on the ground. But it’s foolhardy for the Obama administration to tie its hands and so firmly rule out the possibility of air controllers and special operators on the ground to direct airstrikes and advise fighting forces. It sends the wrong message to our troops, to the enemy, and to partners,” he added.

Hagel acknowledged there was a risk that accompanies arming the Syrian rebels, but he insisted the U.S. will monitor and vet the program. “There will always be risk in a program like this, but we believe that risk is justified by the imperative of destroying ISIL—and the necessity of having capable partners on the ground in Syria.” 

U.S. authorities have also begun prosecuting ISIS supporters at home. Federal prosecutors on Tuesday charged a Rochester, New York man with attempting to recruit people to join the terrorist group and to shoot people in the U.S, including Muslims and returning servicemen. Mufid A. Elfgeeh, a 30-year-old naturalized citizen from Yemen, was under close investigation when he was arrested in May after trying to buy weapons from an undercover FBI informant.

The Pentagon has said it wants to train 5,000 Syrian rebels in one year, something Sen. John McCain of Arizona expressed concern about during a heated portion of the hearing. The Republican said there was no way to make sure the rebels would just take aim at ISIS when they’ve primarily focused on Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces in the past. McCain wanted to know what the U.S would do if Assad’s air forces attacked the rebels the U.S. is training.

Hagel insisted America was focusing on ISIS and that such a situation was premature. McCain shot back, “You don’t think that the Free Syrian Army is going to fight against Bashar Assad, who has been decimating them?” McCain declared it was a “fundamental fallacy” to assume the U.S. can train the rebels to fight ISIS but not Assad.

The Syrian Parliament, meanwhile, has expressed serious reservations about arming the country’s rebels. Jihad al-Lahham, speaker of the parliament, wrote a letter to House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi asking Congress not to arm the rebels, according to NBC News. Al-Lahham says the rebels could sell weapons to ISIS and equipping  them will lead to a “failing state.” 

Several anti-war protesters were escorted out by police during Tuesday’s Senate hearing. The proceedings were interrupted at least five times, with Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, having to repeatedly gavel the session back to order. At one point, one protester with a Code Pink T-shirt began yelling “no more war!” Levin quipped, “you’re acting very war-like yourself.”

In a separate incident, when McCain was speaking and interrupted by a demonstrator, the Arizona senator smiled and said, “I always appreciate special attention.”

Members of Code Pink, an anti-war activist group, have protested congressional hearings for years.

The ISIS threat is expected to be a focal point this week on Capitol Hill.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been traveling in the Middle East trying to encourage Arab allies to join the global coalition to fight ISIS, will appear before the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee to talk about America’s strategy. FBI Director James Comey and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson will speak to the House Committee on Homeland Security. And Obama will visit the U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa., Fla., where he will receive a briefing from top commanders and discuss plans to further attack ISIS.

On Thursday, Kerry will testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Hagel will appear before the House Armed Services Committee. On Friday, Kerry will be in New York to chair a ministerial debate on Iraq at the United Nation’s Security Council.