WASHINGTON - Obama’s top military adviser said Thursday that he would consider deploying a limited number of United States forces to fight alongside Iraqi troops moving to retake Mosul and other areas under the control of Sunni militants.

Gen Martin E Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee that Iraqi troops - who initially fled under the onslaught of Islamic State militants - were now doing a better job of standing and fighting. But he said he could not rule out the possibility that as operations against the Sunni militants move into more complex phases of clearing Islamic State militants out of cities and other territory they hold, American troops may have to help their Iraqi counterparts.

 “I’m not predicting at this point that I would recommend that those forces in Mosul and along the border would need to be accompanied by US forces, but we’re certainly considering it,” General Dempsey said. But he said that he did not anticipate expanding the American military presence in Iraq beyond what he called a “modest” force. “I just don’t foresee a circumstance when it would be in our interest to take this fight on ourselves with a large military contingent,” he said.

 Chuck Hagel said he believed that American airstrikes had been “striking a blow” against the Islamic State. His comments came on the same day that the Islamic State released an audio recording it said was of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, maintaining that the militant group “is good and in the best condition.”

 The congressional testimony on Thursday underscored the challenge facing Obama as he has continued to insist to a war-weary American public that the United States is not returning to ground combat in Iraq. He has maintained that American ground troops will not be used, even as his generals have increasingly hinted that there may not be a way to defeat the Sunni militant group without at least a small number of American ground troops. General Dempsey has used congressional testimony before - most recently in September - to suggest a need for greater military action, particularly if the battle against the militants moves into densely populated cities, as it must do if Iraqi forces are to retake cities claimed by the Islamic State.