By Phil Stewart
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - On his first trip to Iraq since American troops returned this summer, the top U.S. general was dogged by a nagging question from troops.
At meetings over the weekend, soldiers and Marines asked General Martin Dempsey variations on the same basic question: Even if the U.S.-backed campaign succeeds in rolling back Islamic State, what is to prevent this from happening again, years from now?
Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who spent over three years in Iraq including overseeing training, said the only way Iraq will succeed long term is if its leaders could bridge the sectarian divide, something they failed to do after the 2011 U.S. withdrawal.
"I'm not surprised I'm back, to be honest with you," he told Reuters.
Three years after U.S. combat troops went home and left the Shi'ite-dominated government to oversee the peace, a small U.S. force is back and again helping to stop Sunni militants who threaten to overrun the country.
Dempsey said Iraq's new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, had taken some positive steps and that Iraq's new leaders appeared "much more thoughtful about what it might take to actually settle things down."
For many of the Americans, like Dempsey, being in Iraq stirs up old memories. The general asked a group of troops to raise their hands if they had been stationed in Iraq once, twice, three times before. Hands in the audience kept going up as he called out higher numbers, four, five.
Dempsey assured them this campaign was different, with forces farther from the fight and far fewer in number - totaling up to 3,100 in the coming months, as opposed to a peak of about 170,000 under President George W. Bush.
"I want them to understand that this is not like it was," Dempsey said in an interview. "This is not about us being in the lead in any sense. This is about us expecting that Iraq recognizes the threat it faces and is looking to us to help them, advise them."
Some critics in the U.S. Congress say the mission does not go far enough. Dempsey has himself acknowledged U.S. forces might be needed to accompany Iraqi or Kurdish forces into combat to guide air strikes during a complex operation.
One soldier asked Dempsey whether he considered Iraq a combat deployment. Sidestepping political sensitivities, Dempsey said U.S. troops were deployed in a "combat advisory role."
(Editing by David Storey and Jeffrey Benkoe)