BAGHDAD — Iraq's new prime minister said Wednesday that foreign ground troops are neither necessary nor wanted in his country's fight against the Islamic State group, flatly rejecting the idea a day after the top U.S. general recommended that American forces may be needed if current efforts to combat the extremists fail.
In his first interview with foreign media since taking office on Sept. 8, Haider al-Abadi told The Associated Press that U.S. airstrikes have been helpful in the country's efforts to roll back the Sunni militant group, but stressed that putting foreign boots on the ground "is out of the question."
"Not only is it not necessary," he said, "We don't want them. We won't allow them. Full stop."
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday that American ground troops may be needed to battle Islamic State forces in the Middle East if President Barack Obama's current strategy fails, as Congress plunged into an election-year debate of Obama's plan to expand airstrikes and train Syrian rebels.
Al-Abadi also urged the international community to expand its campaign against the extremists to neighboring Syria.
"The fight will go on unless ISIL is hit in Syria," he said, using an acronym for the group. "This is the responsibility of the international community — on top of them the United States government — to do something about ISIL in Syria."
The Islamic State group was established in Iraq but spread to Syria, where it grew exponentially in the chaos of the country's civil war. Following its success in Syria, the extremist group's fighters — including many Iraqi nationals — rampaged across northern and western Iraq in June, seizing control of a huge swath of territory. The group now rules over land stretching from northern Syria to the outskirts of Baghdad.
"We cannot afford to fight our neighbor, even if we disagree on many things," al-Abadi said. "This is our neighbor. We don't want to enter into problems with them. For us sovereignty of Syria is very important."
The CIA estimates the Sunni militant group now has access to somewhere between 20,000 and 31,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria. A senior Iraqi intelligence official told The Associated Press that more than 27,600 Islamic State fighters are believed to be operating in Iraq alone, about 2,600 of whom are foreigners. The official spoke anonymously as he is not authorized to brief the media.