WASHINGTON — 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.
He is to describe his plans in a speech on Wednesday.
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.
Beyond Iraq, 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 the White House suggested Monday that the U.S. could be moving in that direction.
Asked whether the president has made a decision to use military force in Syria, spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama was willing "to go wherever is necessary to strike those who are threatening Americans."
In a Sunday interview on NBC's "Meet the Press," the president compared the recently more robust effort to "the kinds of counterterrorism campaigns that we've been engaging in consistently over the last five, six, seven years."
The U.S. has for years launched limited drone strikes against terror targets in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. The current strikes in Iraq, which began Aug. 8, have involved both drones and manned fighter jets.
By the time of Obama's speech on Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry will be in the Mideast to meet with leaders from Saudi Arabia and Jordan. He will gauge whether other Arab nations might be willing to join a coalition that includes the U.S. and nine allies — mostly in Europe, plus Australia and Canada — that last week agreed to crack down on the Islamic State.
"We look forward to working with the international community and our neighbors in the continuing struggle against the terrorists who threaten us all," Iraqi Ambassador to the U.S. Lukman Faily said Monday.
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.
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 crack down on 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, 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.
In Washington, the president is 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 Kuwait and 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.
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.
France, however, is stoutly opposed to airstrikes or any military action in Syria that might — even indirectly — help Assad, according to a Western diplomat in Washington. He spoke only on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to be named discussing the strategy.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, speaking to reporters traveling with him in Turkey, said Obama must weigh the consequences of what could be a lengthy campaign.
"Once you start an airstrike, or once you start any military action, it doesn't end there. It ends up somewhere down the road," Hagel said. "That's not an excuse for inaction, because, as we know, there are consequences to inaction as well."
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 new Security Council resolution could give Obama and his allies the legal cover and broad international backing to launch more strikes.
But U.S. officials cautioned Monday that Obama may not wait until then. The president, who has remained noncommittal about seeking congressional authorization for an expanded mission, did not seek approval for the strikes underway in Iraq, citing a request for assistance from the Iraqi government and a need to protect U.S. personnel.
The president does plan to meet with congressional leaders on Tuesday. On Monday, Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin urged Congress to support the new government in Baghdad and persuade other Mideast countries to join the fight against the Islamic State.
"I hope the seriousness of the ... threat will encourage members of both parties to unify in this important cause," Levin said.
Associated Press Writers Donna Cassata in Washington and Lolita C. Baldor in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.