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Washington — American ground troops may be needed to battle Islamic State forces in the Middle East if President Barack Obama’s current strategy fails, the nation’s top military officer said Tuesday as Congress plunged into an election-year debate of Obama’s plan to expand airstrikes and train Syrian rebels.

A White House spokesman said quickly the president “will not” send ground forces into combat, but Gen. Martin Dempsey said Obama had personally told him to come back on a “case by case basis” if the military situation changed.

“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,” Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee. He referred to the militants by an alternative name.

Pressed later by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Detroit, the panel’s chairman, the four-star general said if Obama’s current approach isn’t enough to prevail, he might “go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of ground forces.”

Dempsey’s testimony underscored the dilemma confronting many lawmakers as the House moves through its own debate on authorizing the Pentagon to implement the policy Obama announced last week.

In Iraq on Tuesday, the U.S. continued its expanded military campaign, carrying out two airstrikes northwest of Irbil and three southwest of Baghdad.

Democrats in Washington spoke of a fear that the United State might inevitably become dragged into yet another ground war on the heels of Afghanistan and Iraq.

“We must … ask ourselves if we can truly ‘vet’ these rebel groups beyond their known affiliations, and ensure we are not arming the next extremist threat to the region and the world,” said Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Ind.

The same question came up at the Senate hearing, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the U.S. will monitor closely to ensure that weapons don’t fall into the wrong hands.

House Republicans said they worried that Obama was responding tepidly to the current threat by terrorists who have overrun large sections of Iraq and Syria and beheaded two American journalists.

“If it’s important enough to fight, it’s important enough to win,” said Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga.

A vote was expected in the House today, and in the Senate within days.

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