Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, right, and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. / Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images
WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday that none of the U.S. troops who recently arrived in Iraq will take part in battles, though they will be able to defend themselves.
"None will perform combat missions," he said.
Insurgents in Iraq appear to be stretched, having difficulty with supplies and consolidating gains they have made, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Thursday. Meanwhile, Iraq's security forces have been "stiffening."
U.S. assessment teams are studying whether there are options for military strikes on insurgents, Dempsey said.
Dempsey dismissed the notion that there is "mission creep," that U.S. forces will be drawn deeper into the conflict. The assessment teams will recommend the type of assistance that the Pentagon can provide, a concept he referred to as "mission match."
He added that U.S. forces do not intend to coordinate its action with Iranian forces.
Any aid from U.S. forces depends on the Iraqi government developing a government that includes Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites, Dempsey said.
Otherwise, he said, "everything we're talking about makes no difference."
Iraqi forces, trained by great expense by the Pentagon, did not collapse due to the might of the Iraqi rebel group called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Dempsey said. They didn't fight because they don't feel allegiance to the Iraqi government.
The Pentagon has troops, warplanes and ships in the Middle East that could respond to the crisis in Iraq - a response would likely be limited, though it could still pack a punch, according to analysts and Defense officials.
As of late Tuesday, there were 650 troops in Iraq - 470 of them to protect American personnel and property at the embassy and Baghdad International Airport. The remainder are there to assess the security situation in Iraq and assist Iraqi forces in dealing with the threat from Islamic extremists who have captured key cities.
"Clearly, they're posing a threat to Baghdad," said Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon's press secretary.
The Pentagon also has dispatched Apache attack helicopters and surveillance aircraft to the airport, Kirby said.
Those forces are a fraction of the troops and weaponry the U.S. military deployed to Iraq in 2007 and 2008, when more than 150,000 soldiers and Marines fought there. The Army currently has a brigade, about 3,500 soldiers, in neighboring Kuwait, along with associated soldiers to support them.
During the "surge" of extra troops in Iraq in 2007, there were 20 brigades in Iraq, said Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution. It's unlikely that a single brigade, about 3,500 soldiers, would deploy as one unit. However, in teams of 10 to 20, they could advise and fortify Iraqi army units, O'Hanlon said.
Advisory teams and special operations forces, along with troops who could call in airstrikes, could have an effect greater than the limited American involvement in Afghanistan in 2001 that toppled the Taliban government, O'Hanlon said.
To have a lasting effect, however, a new, representative Iraqi government that reaches out to Sunnis would need to be in place first, he said.
Defense Department officials gave this overview of forces in the region:
â?¢ About 35,000 U.S. troops in the Middle East from all services. That total includes an Army brigade and support troops in Kuwait. In Jordan, there is a detachment of F-16s, a Patriot anti-missile battery and a headquarters group.
â?¢ Air Force. There are about 90 Air Force fighters, bombers or other strike aircraft based in the region, including MQ-9 Reaper drones.
There are about 190 other aircraft supporting intelligence and surveillance efforts, including MQ-1 Predators, command-and-control planes, tankers or cargo planes in the region.
â?¢ Navy and Marines: More than 50 ships are in the region, including the USS George H.W. Bush, an aircraft carrier with warplanes. The USS O'Kane and Truxtun, guided-missile destroyers, and the USS Philippine Sea, a guided-missile cruiser, are also in the region.
Ships that carry marines and their equipment there include the USS Gunston Hall and USS Mesa Verde. The USS Bataan is returning to the region.
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