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Could the U.S. military return to Iraq? Officials seem to leave the door open

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel briefs reporters at the Pentagon, Thursday, July 3, 2014. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

The Obama administration's top military advisers said Thursday that it's possible the U.S. military could return to action in Iraq, depending on a yet-to-be finalized assessment of how well Iraq's government can defend itself from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey briefed reporters on Thursday. Hagel said that for now, the few hundred military advisers in Iraq are securing the U.S. embassy and U.S. personnel, and assessing the situation in Iraq.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel briefed reporters on Iraq Thursday, along with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Hagel said the immediate goal is to help Iraq stitch together a new government.

"By reinforcing security at the U.S. embassy, its support facilities, and Baghdad International Airport, we're helping provide our diplomats time and space to work with Sunni, Kurd, Shia political leaders as they attempt to form a new, inclusive national unity government," he said.

But Dempsey said the ongoing assessment could lead to a range of other decisions that the U.S. may have to take, if doing so serves U.S. interests.

"The issue… has been for us to determine the ability of the ISF [Iraq Security Force], after having suffered some initial setbacks, to be able to stabilize the situation and eventually go back on the offensive, to regain their sovereign territory, and what will we be wiling to contribute to that cause," Dempsey said. "That's not a question that we're prepared to answer just yet."

When told by a reporter that this sounds like a long U.S. mission in Iraq, Dempsey indicated again that a role for the U.S. military could emerge as the U.S. analyzes the next moves of ISIS, which he labeled as ISIL.

"We may get to that point, if our national interests drive us there, if ISIL becomes such a threat to the homeland that the president of the United States with our advice decides that we have to take direct action," Dempsey said. "I'm just suggesting to you we're not there yet."

"If the assessment comes back and reveals that it would be beneficial to this effort and to our national security interest to put the advisers in a different role, I will first consult with the secretary, we will consult with the president, we'll provide that option and we'll move ahead," Dempsey added.

Hagel seemed to agree — he indicated that while advisers in Iraq now will not engage in combat, military action could follow. "Advisers, or what may come as a result of any assessments… I don't know where they're going to be," he said.

Both Hagel and Dempsey said they don't yet have a full assessment of the situation in Iraq, but Dempsey said there are some early indications that the ISF is able to defend Baghdad from ISIS.

"Iraqi security forces are stiffening around Baghdad," he said. "Some initial insights are that ISF is stiffening, that they're capable of defending Baghdad, that they would be challenged to go on the offense, mostly logistically challenged."

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