In an interview with All Things Considered, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declined to rule out coordination with Iran and Iranian-backed forces in Iraq. Dempsey also told NPR that one option in Iraq might involve U.S. air assets going after "high-value" individuals within the main Sunni insurgent group.
"One of the things we need to find out is whether Iran is embedded in and advising and supporting the Iraqi security forces," Dempsey said. "It is really about understanding facts on the ground before we make a decision on how to address them."
"We will look at Iran with a cold eye on where and when we may need to operate in the same space and toward what is potentially the same goal of countering" the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
"But I can state with some assurance that their goals in Iraq are not going to be completely aligned with ours, and we're very clear about that," he told NPR's Melissa Block.
"I'm not predicting that it's entirely impossible that we would at any point act collaboratively with Iran," he said. "But there's a long way to go between here and there, in my judgment."
Dempsey's remarks were more nuanced than an earlier statement from the White House that seemed to rule out any possibility of coordination with Iran, which has long backed Shiite militias inside Iraq.
Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One on June 16, press secretary Josh Earnest said: "Any conversation with the Iranian regime will not include military coordination."
Dempsey said the primary goal of the U.S. assessment team sent to Iraq was to determine if the Iraqi security forces "can be a credible partner moving forward," and whether Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is willing to form a government of national unity.
He said the assessment team needs to "get a look under the hood" of the Iraqi security forces to determine if they "remain committed to national unity, [what is] the sectarian makeup ... and the morale of the force, as well as understanding what capabilities, weapon systems, ammunition, etc., they have."
Dempsey nonetheless expressed concern that the new insurgency in Iraq doesn't become "an issue between Sunni and Shia, with [the United States] taking one side or the other."
He said two joint operation centers were being established with U.S. help — one in northern Iraq and one in Baghdad. "I think we've got this thing sized about right, with the right authorities and protections and the inherent right of self-defense in order to accomplish the task."
He told NPR that an "additional option" that he's prepared for President Obama to consider is the possibility of using U.S. assets against "high-value individuals who are the leadership" of ISIS.
"It includes potentially the protection of, in particular, critical infrastructure," he said.
"And then there is the issue of blunting attacks by massed" ISIS forces, he said.
"We're flying a great deal [of] manned and unmanned ... intelligence and reconnaissance assets, and we're building a picture so that if the decision were made to support the Iraqi security forces as they confront [ISIS], we could do so."
Asked what he expects to happen next in Iraq, Dempsey said: "I believe that the [Iraqi security forces] will stiffen around Baghdad," followed by "a period of somewhat stalemate."
He said there would "undoubtedly" be suicide attacks in Baghdad.
"Then ... with Iraq, if it chooses to establish this national unity government," he said, "we will be deliberating on how to push back [ISIS] and take steps to lead to its eventual defeat."
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block. The U.S. now has 180 advisers in Iraq, many of them special forces or Green Berets, to assess the Iraqi military's capabilities in fighting the Sunni extremist group ISIS, also know as ISIL. Those U.S. troops are part of a force of 300 that President Obama has committed to sending. The Pentagon also said, today, that the U.S. is flying manned and unmanned aircraft over Iraq, some of them armed, primarily for protection. Earlier today I spoke with General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff about the role of the U.S. advisers. First, he said, it's essential they find out whether the U.S. has a credible partner in the government of Iraq, and they need to gain a clearer picture of what's going on within the Iraqi military.
GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: The strategy of the Iraqi security force as they're pressured from the North and West, the leadership - does it remain committed to national unity? The sectarian makeup of the force and the morale of the troops, as well as understanding what capabilities, weapons systems, ammunitions - so forth, that they retain. So we need to get a look, both north and west of Baghdad in order to understand their ability to sustain the pressure ISIL is putting them under.
BLOCK: By one estimate, one quarter of the Iraqi Army Battalion has melted away, faced with a very small insurgent force. They can't be accounted for and all their equipment is lost. One quarter - it's a big number.
DEMPSEY: No, it is a big number. And again, it's - it was in the North and Northwest and indirectly West. So Al Anbar province, Nineveh province, have been essentially overrun by the forces of ISIL, but it's not just the forces of ISIL. It's those that align themselves with ISIL - former Baathists, Naqshbandi group - groups that have had a problem with the government of Iraq for some time. And so when they align themselves with each other, they became a bit of a popular movement in the Sunni parts of Iraq, and in the face of that, the leaders of those parts of the Army that were operating there were either co-opted or bought off or had their families threatened or believed the central government was, in fact, not working on their behalf, and they threw down their arms. Yeah, so it is a big number.
BLOCK: Beyond assessing the situation on the ground, if there were to be actionable intelligence - those advisers on the ground know that ISIS or ISIL forces are marching on a new city - they're about to take over new city. Could they call in an airstrike?
DEMPSEY: Right, so let me now move from the mission I've been given to additional options that I've been tasked to prepare for the president of the United States to consider. And those do include high-value individuals who are the leadership of ISIL. That includes, potentially, the protection of, in particular, critical infrastructure. And then there is the issue of blunting attacks by massed groups of ISIL. But those options are being refined because the first step was to make sure we had the right intelligence architecture in place and we - we're flying a great deal of both manned and unmanned ISR - intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets. And we're building a picture so that if the decision were made to support the Iraqi security forces as they confront ISIL, then we could do so.
BLOCK: In those scenarios that you mentioned - those possible scenarios of the future - protecting infrastructure, blunting attacks - could you imagine that you'd be in a position as chairman of the Joint Chiefs that you'd be advising the president - we need more troops - we need more troops on the ground?
DEMPSEY: Well, first of all, I've learned that among the jobs of the chairman and the senior military leaders of our country is never been guilty of a failure of imagination. So although this is not an outcome that any of us hope to see, we certainly understand what it would take if asked to do so - to assist the Iraqi security forces, to restore the sovereignty of Iraq. Now, I'll tell you, that's not an overnight operation. And it's - it'll be a decision that's made deliberately and it'll be a decision that will be made with regional partners, assuming that we find that the Iraqi security forces can be a credible partner going forward.
BLOCK: And those options could, if I'm hearing you right, include more U.S. troops?
DEMPSEY: Well, look, I mean we've got - you know, we've got a tremendous arsenal of assets and capabilities at our disposal. You know, some of which - many of which and probably most of which, in an environment like this, would be in the air domain. But of course to use our power responsibly you've got to have the right kind of intelligence, and some of that means you'd have to have the right kind of intelligence from the ground. And so if you're asking me could the current assessment mission adapt or transform into an advisory role with the capability to call for close air support, of course it could. That is one of the options, but it's not an option, no, that were considering at this time.
BLOCK: General Dempsey, we reached out to a former top U.S. military officer, and he confessed that he's very confused by just the what the U.S. mission is here. And he has this - what is it you're trying to do? Is it to destroy ISIS or ISIL, as you call it? Is it to rebuild the Iraqi army? And he concludes with this thought - these are the kinds of questions that were never asked when we went into Iraq.
DEMPSEY: No - yeah - that's - well, first, thanks for bring that up 'cause I do think there is a very deliberate response to that question, and the first thing we've done is we have moved forces into Iraq and into the region to ensure the safety of U.S. personnel and facilities. Now, you know, at the pace at which ISIL was previously moving, there was some concern, even earlier this week, that Baghdad in general and the U.S. embassy in particular could be threatened. And so we moved forces into the embassy to reinforce it. We moved naval, maritime assets and air assets into the North Arabian Gulf. And then we conceived of this assessment which would answer a very important question which is can the Iraqi security forces defend Baghdad? Once we have that assessment, that that'll take us in one of two directions, it seems to me. One is if they can defend Baghdad, and if we get indications that the central government intends to form a unity government, that we'll begin to address the issues that have led to this uprising, if you will. Then, that takes us on a path to provide a certain kind of support going forward. If we get an indication that the Iraqi security forces may not hold or that the central government is not on a path where they will achieve something that we would describe as a national unity government, we still have the ISIL challenge, but we probably look at other ways to address it with other regional partners.
BLOCK: General Dempsey, I want to ask you about the role of Iran which also has advisers in Iraq. They're also flying drones. They're moving in weapons to support the Shiite government. So effectively, we have our long-time adversary, Iran, making common cause with United States. Now, the White House has said the U.S. is not going to coordinate with Iran on military issues. From your perspective - from a military perspective, on the ground, if you and Iran both have advisers there is it realistic not to coordinate?
DEMPSEY: That's to be determined. I mean one of the things these - this assessment will accomplish for us - these teams that are going to go and, let's say, look under the hood of the Iraqi security forces - I mean we're going to - the likelihood is that we will get a feel for the Shia militias that have been trained in the past by Iran - how their operating and with what objectives. Now, there's every reason to believe - 'cause I've spent so much time there - there's every reason for me to believe that we will encounter them, probably and most likely in places like the holy sites of Shia Islam.
BLOCK: When you say them, are you talking about the Iranian advisers?
DEMPSEY: I'm talking about the Shia militia and their advisers.
BLOCK: From Iran.
DEMPSEY: Yeah, from Iran. Yeah, I would expect so. In fact there would - I would be surprised if we didn't find it. In terms of coordinating with the central Iraqi security forces, I don't know. But that's one of the things we need to find out - is whether Iran is embedded in and advising and supporting the Iraqi security forces. And that will take us in one direction, and if they're not, that takes us in another. And it is really about understanding facts on the ground before we make a decision on how to address them.
BLOCK: Well, Secretary of State John Kerry has said the U.S. is interested in communicating with the Iran and sharing information about Iraq. Do you agree with that?
DEMPSEY: That's the right person to be saying that and having the conversation. But militarily, I can tell you there's a lot of leaders of the IRGC Quds Force and some of the advisers to the Shia militia that have a lot of American blood on their hands. Now at some point, you know, all conflicts end with some degree of reconciliation among adversaries. So I'm not predicting that it's entirely impossible that we would at any point work collaboratively with Iran. But there's a long way to go between here and there in my judgment.
BLOCK: General Dempsey, thank you.
DEMPSEY: Thank you.
BLOCK: That's General Martin Dempsey. He's chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.