Defense secretary says US is retooling fight against IS

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Signaling a possible escalation of U.S. military action in the Middle East, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Tuesday that the United States is retooling its strategy in Iraq and Syria and would conduct unilateral ground raids if needed to target Islamic State militants.

The U.S. has done special operations raids in Syria and participated in a ground operation to rescue hostages last week in northern Iraq that resulted in the first U.S. combat death in Iraq since 2011. Carter did not say under what circumstances the U.S. might conduct more ground action, but said, "Once we locate them, no target is beyond our reach."

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"We won't hold back from supporting capable partners in opportunistic attacks against ISIL, or conducting such missions directly, whether by strikes from the air or direct action on the ground," Carter said, using an acronym for the militant group.

Carter and Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Republicans harshly criticized the Obama administration's strategy in Syria and Iraq, where IS militants have captured large swaths of territory and have largely fought the U.S.-led coalition to a stalemate.

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Defense secretary says US is retooling fight against IS
FILE - In this Monday, April 19, 2010 file photo, Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki holds a paper displaying photographs of a man the Iraqi government claims to be al-Qaida leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi at a news conference in Baghdad, Iraq. U.S. and Iraqi forces killed the two top al-Qaida in Iraq leaders on April 18, 2010, allowing Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to become the leader of a terror group weakened by a concerted campaign aimed at ending a Sunni insurgency in the country.(AP Photo/Hadi Mizban, File)
FILE - In this Feb. 21, 2009 file photo, guards stand at the entrance of a renovated Abu Ghraib prison, now renamed Baghdad Central Prison and run by Iraqis, in Baghdad, Iraq. A military-style assault by al-Qaida leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s fighters on two Baghdad-area prisons in July, 2013 freed more than 500 inmates.(AP Photo / Karim Kadim, File)
FILE - In this Wednesday April 21, 2010 file photo, an Iraqi military helicopter flies over the site of a joint U.S.-Iraqi raid that reportedly killed Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri, two top-ranking al-Qaida figures, about six miles (10 kilometers) southwest of Tikrit. U.S. and Iraqi forces killed the two top al-Qaida in Iraq leaders on April 18, 2010, allowing Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to become the leader of a terror group weakened by a concerted campaign aimed at ending a Sunni insurgency in the country.(AP Photo/Karim Kadim, File)
FILE - In this Dec. 10, 2010 photo, pictures of slain Iraqi Christians are displayed during Mass at Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad, Iraq. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s al-Qaida militants attacked the church on Oct. 31 during Sunday night mass, killing 58 people in the deadliest assault targeting Christians since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion there. The militants reportedly demand the release of Muslim women they claim were held by Egypt’s Coptic Christian church.(AP Photo/Hadi Mizban, File)
FILE - In this Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2012 file photo, Iraqis inspect the aftermath a day after a car bomb attack in a shopping area in Karradah, Baghdad, Iraq. In his first purported online message on July 21, 2012, al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi promised to regain lost ground in Iraq and calls on militants to “chase and liquidate the judges, the investigators and the guards.” Within days, his group begins a campaign of attacks, car bombings and other assaults killing hundreds.(AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed, File)
FILE - In this April 23, 2013 file photo, a suspected Yemeni al-Qaida militant, center, holds a banner as he stands behind bars during a court hearing in state security court in Sanaa, Yemen. In a competition with the Islamic State group for recruits and prestige across the Middle East, al-Qaida has sought to distinguish itself from its rival's bloodthirstiness, taking an approach that in jihadi circles would be considered pragmatic. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed, File)
A sign on the northern road exiting the town of Gao, Northern Mali, Wednesday Jan. 30, 2013, reads "welcome to the islamic state of Gao". Islamist extremists fled the city Saturday after French, Chadian and Nigerien troops arrived, ending 10 months of radical islamic control over the city.(AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
FILE - In this Sunday, March 30, 2014, file photo, Islamic State group militants hold up their flag as they patrol in a commandeered Iraqi military vehicle in Fallujah, 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of Baghdad, Iraq. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s forces swept into Ramadi and Fallujah in Iraq’s Anbar province, which Iraqi security forces had abandoned weeks earlier. That came after security forces killed demonstrators during a Sunni protest, effectively turning the unrest into an uprising.(AP Photo, File)
FILE - In this June 23, 2014, file photo, fighters from the Islamic State group parade in a commandeered Iraqi security forces armored vehicle down a main road at the northern city of Mosul, Iraq. Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s fighters took over Iraq's second-largest city of Mosul in June, 2014, followed by Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit and smaller communities in the Sunni heartland as government forces melt away.(AP Photo/File)
German Kreshnik B. waits for the beginning of his trial at a higher regional court in Frankfurt, Germany, Monday, Sept.15, 2014. He is accused of having been a member of the Islamic state group in Syria. He was arrested when he came back to Germany in December 2013. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)
FILE - In this Monday, June 16, 2014 file photo, demonstrators chant pro-Islamic State group slogans as they wave the group's flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, 225 miles (360 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad, Iraq. The IS declaration of a "caliphate" in Iraq and Syria inspired a stream of thousands of foreign fighters to join it and earned it pledges of allegiance by individual militants around the region. (AP Photo, File)
FILE - In this Monday, Nov. 24, 2014, file photo, smoke billows behind an Islamic State group sign during clashes between militants from the Islamic State group and Iraqi security forces during a military operation to regain control of the town of Sadiyah, 60 miles (95 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq in Diyala province, Iraq. In a competition with the Islamic State group for recruits and prestige across the Middle East, al-Qaida has sought to distinguish itself from its rival's bloodthirstiness, taking an approach that in jihadi circles would be considered pragmatic. (AP Photo, File)
A photograph on a television screen shown by Army Lt. Gen. William Mayville, Jr., Director of Operations J3, while he briefs the news media on operations in Syria, at the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
This image provided by the Department of Defense shows a image that was shown by Army Lt. Gen. William Mayville, Jr., Director of Operations J3, during a briefing on operations in Syria, at the Pentagon in Washington on Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Department of Defense)
This image provided by the Department of Defense shows a image that was shown by Army Lt. Gen. William Mayville, Jr., Director of Operations J3, during a briefing on operations in Syria, at the Pentagon in Washington on Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Department of Defense)
FILE - In this Monday, Nov. 24, 2014 file photo, Iraqi army soldiers deploy in front of a court run by the Islamic State group after a military operation to regain control of the town of Sadiyah in Diyala province, 60 miles (95 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq. (AP Photo, File)
Iraqi security forces prepare to attack Islamic State extremist positions in central Tikrit, 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, March 29, 2015. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
Black flags used by the Islamic State group are seen over their combat positions in the Rashad Bridge, which connects the provinces of Salah al-Din and Kirkuk, 290 kilometers (180 miles) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, Sept. 29, 2014. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)
Syrian Kurdish fighter Delkhwaz Sheikh Ahmad, 22, checks a picture on his mobile showing Islamic State group fighters killed in fighting with Syrian Kurdish fighters, as he prepares to leave for Kobani, Syria, to rejoin the fighting, at his brother's house in Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border, Friday, Oct. 17, 2014. The father of two is a member of the People’s Protection Units, also known as YPG and is fighting against militants of the Islamic State group in Kobani, Syria. Every few weeks, he takes a couple of days to cross the border into Turkey to visit his family that had evacuated. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, and its surrounding areas, has been under assault by extremists of the Islamic State group since mid-September and is being defended by Kurdish fighters. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
FILE - In this Aug. 10, 2014 file photo, an aircraft lands after missions targeting the Islamic State group in Iraq from the deck of the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush in the Persian Gulf. Combined U.S.-Arab airstrikes at the heart of the Islamic State group's military strongholds in Syria achieved their strategic aim of showing the extremists that their savage attacks will not go unanswered, the top American military officer said Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali, File)
In this image made from video broadcast on Egyptian state television on Monday, Feb. 16, 2015, a fighter jet leaves the hangar in preparation to launch airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Libya after the extremist group released a grisly video showing the beheading of several Egyptian Coptic Christians it had held hostage for weeks. (AP Photo/Egyptian State Television via AP video)
In this image released by the Egyptian Presidency in the early hours of Monday, Feb. 16, 2015, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi makes a statement after militants in Libya affiliated with the Islamic State group released a grisly video showing the beheading of several Egyptian Coptic Christians it had held hostage for weeks. Egypt said Monday it has launched airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Libya following the release of the video, marking the first time Cairo has publicly acknowledged taking military action in neighboring Libya, where extremist groups seen as a threat to both countries have taken root in recent years. (AP Photo/Egyptian Presidency)
A man is comforted by others as he mourns over Egyptian Coptic Christians who were captured in Libya and killed by militants affiliated with the Islamic State group, outside of the Virgin Mary church in the village of el-Aour, near Minya, 220 kilometers (135 miles) south of Cairo, Egypt, Monday, Feb. 16, 2015. Egyptian warplanes struck Islamic State targets in Libya on Monday in swift retribution for the extremists' beheading of a group of Egyptian Christian hostages on a beach, shown in a grisly online video released hours earlier. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
Iraqi security forces participate in a drill as U.S. forces train them in Taji, north of Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, March 21, 2015. U.S. military officials have said a coordinated military mission to retake Mosul, Iraq's second largest city held by the Islamic State group, will likely begin in April or May and involve up to 25,000 Iraqi troops. But the Americans have cautioned that if the Iraqis are not ready, the offensive could be delayed. Iraqi officials have backed away from setting a timeline. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)
Iraqi security forces participate in a drill as U.S. forces help train them in Taji, north of Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, March 21, 2015. U.S. military officials have said a coordinated military mission to retake Mosul, Iraq's second largest city held by the Islamic State group, will likely begin in April or May and involve up to 25,000 Iraqi troops. But the Americans have cautioned that if the Iraqis are not ready, the offensive could be delayed. Iraqi officials have backed away from setting a timeline. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)
A bombs, seen top left, falls on an Islamic State position in eastern Kobani, during an airstrike by the US led coalition, seen from a hilltop outside Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border Saturday, Nov. 8, 2014. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, and its surrounding areas, has been under assault by extremists of the Islamic State group since mid-September and is being defended by Kurdish fighters. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
This picture released late Thursday, Aug. 20, 2015, by an Islamic State militant-affiliated website, shows a bulldozer, background, of the Islamic State militants destroying the Saint Eliane Monastery near the town of Qaryatain which IS captured in early August, in Homs province, Syria. A priest and activists say the Islamic State group has demolished an ancient monastery in central Syria. A Christian clergyman told The Associated Press in Damascus that IS militants also wrecked a church inside the monastery that dates back to the first Christian centuries. The priest, who spoke Friday on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said the monastery included an Assyrian Catholic church. (Islamic State militant website via AP)
Mourners carry the coffins of victims of Saturday's Ankara bombing attacks, during a funeral in Istanbul, Monday, Oct. 12, 2015. Turkish investigators are close to identifying one of the suicide bombers in Turkey's deadliest attacks in years, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Monday, adding that the Islamic State group was the "Number one priority" of the investigation. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
Armoured police vehicles patrol as they block a road leading to the site of armed clashes with militants in Diyarbakir, southeastern Turkey, Monday, Oct. 26, 2015. Police raided a house used by a suspected cell of the Islamic State group triggering a clash that killed up to seven militants and two policemen, Turkish media reports said. It was not immediately clear if the operation was linked to suicide bombings of a peace rally in the capital Ankara earlier this month that killed 102 people. (AP Photo/Mahmut Bozarslan)
From left, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French president Francois Hollande and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo hold a white rose as they pay their respects to the victims of the attacks of the 13th November on the Place de la Republique prior to a meeting at the Elysee Palace, in Paris, Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2015. Merkel's visit to Paris is part of president Hollande's diplomatic offensive to get the international community to bolster the campaign against the Islamic State militants. (Etienne Laurent, Pool Photo via AP)
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With little recent progress in defeating the militant group, the defense secretary's testimony outlined a changing U.S. approach to the fight against IS. The changes point toward the prospect of deeper U.S. military involvement, although President Barack Obama has said he would not authorize a major commitment of ground combat forces.

Among other options being considered is providing close-air support for Iraqi ground forces with Apache helicopters or other aircraft, and embedding U.S. military advisers with smaller Iraqi units, thus placing the Americans closer to the front lines. That's according to defense officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

The U.S. now has about 3,300 troops in Iraq to train and advise Iraqi forces and to protect U.S. facilities. There are no U.S. troops in Syria.

Among options being considered is using U.S. Army Apache helicopters and perhaps other aircraft to provide close-air support for Iraqi ground troops in certain circumstances, one U.S. defense official said after Carter testified. The official was not authorized to discuss internal deliberations publicly and thus spoke on condition of anonymity.

The administration also is considering other moves that would place U.S. troops closer to the front lines.

The changes Carter cited focus largely on targeting Raqqa, the militants' declared capital in Syria, and recapturing Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province in western Iraq, which IS fighters captured in May and have successfully defended so far.

In Syria, Carter said the U.S. will support moderate Syrian forces fighting IS militants, who have made territorial gains near Raqqa. He said the U.S. hopes to better equip anti-IS forces, further bolster Jordan and intensify the American air campaign with additional U.S. and coalition aircraft to target IS with heavier airstrikes.

"In the new train-and-equip effort that we described today, we will look to identify and then support capable and motivated forces on Syrian territory that are willing to take on IS," Carter said. "We have identified some of them already. And the new approach is to enable them, train them and equip them, rather than trying to create such forces anew, which was the previous approach."

A Defense Department program to train and equip moderate rebels to combat the Islamic State was a failure, and CIA-backed rebels fighting Assad are now under attack by Russian bombers.

In Iraq, Carter said the U.S. is willing to provide more firepower and other support if the Iraqi government can create a motivated Iraqi force that includes ethnic Sunnis.

"We've given the Iraqi government two battalions worth of equipment for mobilizing Sunni tribal forces. ... If local Sunni forces aren't sufficiently equipped, regularly paid and empowered as co-equal members of the Iraqi security forces, ISIL's defeats in Anbar will only be temporary," Carter said.

If done simultaneously, all the actions in the new U.S. strategy on the ground and in the air "should help shrink IS territory into a smaller and smaller area and create new opportunities for targeting IS — ultimately denying this evil movement any safe haven," Carter said.

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Carter testified just weeks after Russia began conducting hundreds of airstrikes in Syria. Moscow says it is trying to help the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad defeat IS, but many of the Russia airstrikes have targeted Syrian rebels in areas where the extremist group is not present.

Carter reiterated his complaint that the Russian approach is "wrong-headed" and suggested a "doubling down on their long-standing relationship with Assad."

"It appears the vast majority of their (the Russians') strikes, by some estimates as high as 85 percent to 90 percent, use dumb bombs, which obviously increases the possibility of civilian casualties," he said.

Carter's testimony drew criticism from Republicans on the committee, primarily because it does not involve the ouster of Assad.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a presidential candidate, said Russia, Iran and the Hezbollah militant group all are supporting Assad. Carter and Dunford both acknowledged that the U.S. was supporting moderate forces in Syria in the fight against the Islamic State, but not those fighting against Assad.

Carter said the U.S. approach to removing Assad has been mostly a political effort.

Dunford said, "I think the balance of forces right now are in Assad's advantage."

Graham seized on their replies.

"If I'm Assad, this is a good day for me because the American government has just said, without saying it, that they are not going to fight to replace me," Graham said.

"You have turned Syria over to Russia and Iran. ... This is a sad day for America and the region will pay hell for this," Graham said, adding that he thought the U.S. strategy was half-baked. "The Arabs are not going to accept this. The people of Syria are not going to accept this."

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