By Phil Stewart
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama is weighing expanding the number of training sites for Iraqi forces as a way to bolster the battle against Islamic State, the top U.S. military officer said on Tuesday, a move that could mean deploying more U.S. forces.
But General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a small group of reporters that Obama's requests for options in Iraq left intact a U.S. military strategy that has so far kept U.S. ground troops off the front lines.
"We’ve made some recommendations on potential enhancements to the training and equip mission," Dempsey said, citing options including new training sites.
The U.S. military was now working on Obama's follow-up questions about how such a program would work, including what strain it might put on Pentagon resources and troops already devoted to missions elsewhere, he said.
Western strategy in Iraq has come under fire again in recent weeks after Islamic State militants captured the city of Ramadi despite coalition air strikes designed to halt their advance and reverse their gains. Witnesses said Iraqi government forces abandoned their arms and fled.
Obama said on Monday the United States did not yet have a "complete strategy" for training Iraqi security forces to reconquer territory seized by Islamic State fighters.
Dempsey noted, however, that Obama had not asked for options that "would imply the strategy is ineffective," suggesting instead the president sought to improve the effort under way.
Dempsey suggested it was premature to discuss additional troop deployments until a plan had been fleshed out, saying the matter was still "to be determined."
A senior U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a decision by Obama to expand training of Iraqi forces would likely require some "additional trainers and support personnel."
"Any increase would likely be modest," the official said.
There are about 3,000 U.S. advisers and trainers on the ground in Iraq.
At the Pentagon, spokesman Colonel Steve Warren said the United States had noted that forces in Iraq who had undergone U.S.-backed training emerged as "an improved fighting force."
"Because of those observations, we've determined that it is better to train more Iraqi security forces and we're now working through a strategy for how to do that," Warren said.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Additional reporting by David Alexander in Washington; Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Peter Cooney)