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WH pushes back on talk of combat troops in Iraq

The White House and congressional Democrats on Tuesday pushed back against speculation that President Obama could order ground troops into Iraq, after the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said combat forces could fight Islamic militants.

Gen. Martin Dempsey was "referring to a hypothetical scenario in which there might be a future situation in which he might make a tactical recommendation to the president as it relates to ... the use of ground troops," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday.

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Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier in the day that at some point he could recommend to Obama that the 1,600 American advisers currently in Iraq serve alongside local troops to defeat fighters with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

"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," said Dempsey, using an alternate acronym for the group.

But the White House said Dempsey was simply planning for a wide range of contingencies and that Obama has been "very specific and precise" about not deploying ground troops into a combat role in either Iraq or Syria.

"I am confident, if you asked Gen. Dempsey if he is on the same page as the commander in chief, he would say he is," Earnest added.

In Congress, lawmakers are weighing whether to authorize Obama to arm and train Syrian rebel groups to take on ISIS. The measure has sparked fears from lawmakers in both parties that the U.S. is quickly becoming entrenched in another Mideast conflict.

Democrats on Capitol Hill also looked to dismiss any concerns raised by Dempsey's testimony.

Asked whether Dempsey's comments opened up the possibility of U.S. ground troops being deployed, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), said "No."

"He [Dempsey] said they're not needed," Levin told reporters. 

"Every military leader is going to say, if there's a change in circumstances he's gonna be open to a different recommendation. That doesn't mean he suggested they may be needed," Levin said.

"He suggested that if, in fact, they are needed in the future ... he is open to making a different recommendation."

The State Department said those who had seized on Dempsey's comments were "parsing his words a little bit."

"The president has been very clear we will not have troops on the ground in combat roles, period," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said. "That is an underlying principle of our actions in Iraq.

“I think there was a long exchange this morning about what the advisers are doing, but again, we’ve been very clear about the combat-boots-on-the-ground question," she added.