WASHINGTON — Iran is playing a helpful role against Islamic State militants in Iraq now, but once the extremists are vanquished, Tehran-backed militias could undermine efforts to unify the country, the top U.S.military officer said Wednesday.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey told lawmakers that any move to counter IS is a 'positive thing." But he said there are worries about whether those Shiite militias will later turn against Sunni or Kurdish Iraqis and hamper efforts to bridge ethnic and political divisions that have made peace elusive in Iraq.
"We are all concerned about what happens after the drums stop beating and ISIL is defeated, and whether the government of Iraq will remain on a path to provide an inclusive government for all of the various groups within it," Dempsey said, using an acronym for the militant group.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said officials are watching to see whether the militias, after recapturing lost ground, "engage in acts of retribution and ethnic cleansing." At this point, "there no indication that that is a widespread event."
Dempsey joined Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Ash Carter in testifying for more than three hours at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing called to examine President Obama's proposal for new war powers to fight IS, which holds about one-third of Iraq and neighboring Syria.
The committee chairman, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., lamented that Obama's proposal does not give the U.S.military clear authority to defend moderate forces training for the Syrian fight from the bombing risk by troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Dempsey cited "active discussion" about the kind of support "we would supply once the new Syrian forces are fielded."
Carter later told reporters at the Pentagon that the U.S. will have "some obligation" to support the moderates as they take on IS and face possible attacks from Assad.
"We all understand that," Carter said. "And we're working through what kinds of support and under what conditions we would do so, to include the possibility that, even though they're trained and equipped to combat ISIL, they could come into contact with forces of the Assad regime."
Carter and Dempsey's comments opened the door to possible U.S. military action against Assad forces, if needed, to protect moderate rebels during a clash with regime troops. Obama has ruled out U.S. troops in ground combat in Syria.
Earlier Wednesday, Iraqi soldiers and Shiite militiamen entered IS-held Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown. They breached one of extremists' strongholds in an important test for Iraqi forces.
Iranian military advisers were helping guide Iraqi forces in the advance. Among those directing operations was the commander of Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard's Quds Force.
"The Tikrit operation will be a strategic inflection point one way or the other in terms of easing our concerns or increasing them," Dempsey said.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said he thinks much of the U.S. strategy is being driven by a desire not to upset the Iranians so they do not walk away from international negotiations aimed at preventing the Islamic Republic from being able to develop nuclear weapons.
"I believe that our military strategy toward IS is influenced by our desire not to cross red lines that the Iranians have about U.S. military presence in the region," Rubio said.
"Absolutely, not in the least," Kerry replied.
On the issue of new powers to fight IS, the three witnesses defended the proposal that Obama submitted to Congress last month. The legislation, once finalized, would set up the first war vote in Congress in 13 years.
Carter said Obama's draft would allow U.S. military force against IS for three years. That would give the next president and Congress the chance to reauthorize it, if needed. He said there are no geographical restrictions included in the proposal because IS has shown signs of activity beyond Syria and Iraq.
Under Obama's proposal, the fight could extend to any "closely related successor entity" to IS. The administration has ruled out any "enduring" offensive combat operations.
Carter said the plan "does not authorize long-term, large-scale offensive ground combat operations like those we conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan, because our strategy does not call for them," Carter said. "Instead, local forces must provide the enduring presence needed for an enduring victory."
Republicans have expressed unhappiness that Obama chose to exclude the possibility of a long-term commitment of ground forces. Some Democrats voiced dismay that he had left the door open to any deployment at all.
"What does 'no enduring offensive combat operations' mean to you?" asked Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the committee's top Democrat.
"I don't think anybody contemplates years or a year," Kerry said. "That's not in the thinking of the president."
Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.