WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama will go on the offensive against the Islamic State group with a broader counterterror mission than he previously has been willing to embrace, U.S. officials said Monday. The new plan, however, still won’t commit U.S. troops to a ground war against the brutal insurgency and will rely heavily for now on allies to pitch in for what could be an extended campaign.
Obama’s more aggressive posture — which officials say will target Islamic State militants comprehensively and not just to protect U.S. interests or help resolve humanitarian disasters — reflects a new direction for a president who campaigned to end the war in Iraq and has generally been deeply reluctant to use U.S. military might since he took office in 2009.
“Almost every single county on Earth has a role to play in eliminating the ISIL threat and the evil that it represents,” Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters Monday night, using an acronym for the Islamic State. He said nations around the world are seeking to defeat the militancy with a coalition “built to endure for the months, and perhaps years, to come.”
The U.S. has already launched more than 100 airstrikes against militant targets in Iraq, including a new series that the military said killed an unusually large number of Islamic State fighters. A Central Command statement Monday said the strikes hit targets near the Haditha Dam, and a spokesman, Maj. Curtis Kellogg, said 50 to 70 fighters were targeted and most were believed to have been killed.
Now, after the beheadings of two American freelance journalists, Obama is considering expanding the airstrikes campaign into Syria, where the Islamic State has a safe haven. Obama has long avoided taking military action in Syria, concerned about indirectly assisting President Bashar Assad and his government in Damascus. But White House spokesman Josh Earnest suggested Monday that the U.S. could be moving in that direction, saying Obama was willing “to go wherever is necessary to strike those who are threatening Americans.”
Obama is to describe his plans in a speech on Wednesday. By that time, Kerry will be headed to Saudi Arabia and Jordan to meet with Mideast leaders and gauge their level of commitment to a growing worldwide coalition that is uniting against the Islamic State. Kerry said nations from Canada to Estonia to Kuwait to Australia have already contributed a mix of assistance.
As he weighs his next move, Obama was soliciting advice Monday from prominent foreign policy experts from across the political spectrum over dinner at the White House. Among the guests invited to join Obama and Vice President Joe Biden were former national security advisers from the Obama, George W. Bush, Clinton and Carter administrations, as well as Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass and former Acting CIA Director Michael Morrell.
In a call Monday evening, Obama congratulated new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi for the approval of a new government. The White House said al-Abadi “expressed his commitment to work with all communities in Iraq as well as regional and international partners to strengthen Iraq’s capabilities” to fight the Islamic State militants.
Obama also spoke with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott on the need to keep addressing the ongoing threat from the Islamic State and to thank Australia for its contributions to humanitarian air drops in northern Iraq, the White House said.
Yet beyond airstrikes, much of the international strategy against the Islamic State covers the same ground as it has for the past several months.
Two senior U.S. officials said it will continue to curb foreign fighters and funding flowing to militants, aim to persuade the new government in Baghdad that was seated Monday to give more power to its Sunni citizens in hopes of discouraging them from joining the insurgency, and strengthen Iraqi government forces and moderate Syrian rebels in their respective battles against the Islamic State.
Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have for months worked to combat the Islamic State either by sharing intelligence, sending humanitarian aid, providing military assistance to rebels, or punishing suspected foreign fighters. Broadened U.S. airstrikes would help cover Iraqi military forces, particularly the Peshmerga forces in the country’s Kurdish north, and Western-backed elements of the Syrian opposition, aiming to help them make gains against the militants.
But Western leaders still appear divided on whether to launch airstrikes in Syria. U.S. officials said Obama is leaning toward doing so as part of an international effort, and British Prime Minister David Cameron last week said he has not ruled them out. It’s likely that the airstrikes, if they occur, would aim to avoid any of Assad’s aircraft, landing strips or other assets that are part of Damascus’ campaign to attack Sunni rebel groups that include the Islamic State.
Obama is also expected to press congressional lawmakers to approve $500 million in lethal aid to the Syrian rebels. He proposed the aid earlier this year, but his request has stalled on Capitol Hill.
The U.S. also has pressured Sunni rulers in Qatar to prosecute private financiers in their nations who are believed to be funneling money to the militants. And the West is pressing Turkey to shut its borders with Syria and Iraq to restrict the travel of Islamic State militants and keep foreign fighters from joining the battle.
In Cairo, meanwhile, the 22-nation Arab League agreed to take urgent measures to combat the Islamic State through political, defense, security and legal means. A resolution outlining the league’s intent did not specify how that might happen, and it did not explicitly back American military action against the extremists.
The bulk of the strategy is expected to be hammered out later this month at the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, where a Western diplomat said it’s possible the world leaders will adopt a new Security Council resolution on how to deal with the Islamic State. That would give the Obama and his allies the legal cover and broad international backing they desire to launch airstrikes.
But two U.S. officials cautioned Monday that Obama may not wait until then, and he has remained non-committal about the prospect of seeking congressional authorization for an expanded mission. He also did not seek congressional approval for the strikes underway in Iraq, citing a request for military assistance from the Iraqi government and the need to protect U.S. personnel in the country.
Associated Press writers Donna Cassata in Washington and Lolita C. Baldor in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.
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