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During a visit to a French aircraft carrier in the Gulf taking part in the air campaign, Gen. Martin Dempsey appealed for "strategic patience" in the fight against the IS group in Iraq and Syria.
Expanding the air war could risk civilian casualties and play into the hands of IS propaganda, he said aboard the Charles de Gaulle.
"So we have a responsibility to be very precise in the use of air power. And that means that it takes time" to gather accurate intelligence on possible targets, the general said.
"Carpet bombing through Iraq is not the answer."
The tempo of military operations also depended on the strength of the Iraqi army and the Baghdad government's willingness to reconcile with an alienated Sunni population, he said.
The conflict could be decided on the battlefield relatively quickly, but military operations were only part of a broader effort, said Dempsey.
"I do think it's going to require some strategic patience."
Dempsey spoke in the carrier's hangar alongside his French counterpart, General Pierre de Villiers, who said he shared the American general's view.
The coalition faced a "paradox" as Western countries wanted "quick results" but the Iraqi army had to be rebuilt before it could take back territory from the IS extremists, de Villiers said.
Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said there was no need to increase the number of American troops advising and training local forces, as the Iraqi army was not ready for a larger-scale effort.
"We've got trainers and advisers that are waiting for some of the Iraqi units to show up," the general said of the 2,600-strong US contingent.
"And when they've shown up, a handful of them, they've shown up under strength and sometimes without the proper equipment."
Dempsey earlier watched Rafale fighter jets roar off the deck of the carrier, which is carrying out an eight-week mission in support of the war on the IS militants.
Between 10 and 15 warplanes from the De Gaulle conduct combat missions over Iraq every day, French officers said.
The unusual visit by America's top-ranking officer reflected improving ties between the US and French armed forces in recent years, as well as a friendly rapport between the two top generals.
In contrast to the bitter arguments over the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, which was opposed by France, Paris and Washington now mostly see eye-to-eye on the threat posed by the IS extremists.