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Obama Outlines Strategy to Destroy Islamic State

President Barack Obama addresses the nation from the Cross Hall in the White House in Washington, Sept. 10. (AP Photo/Saul Loeb, Pool)
President Barack Obama addresses the nation from the White House on his strategy to destroy the Islamic State. (AP Photo/Saul Loeb, Pool)

President Obama outlined on Wednesday a long-term plan to "degrade and destroy" the Islamic State that will include sending 475 more U.S. troops to advise Iraqi forces and the expansion of airstrikes into the terrorist organization's safe havens in Syria.

On the eve of the 9/11 anniversary, and more than two years after he ordered the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, Obama said in an address to the nation that "America will lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat."

"Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy," Obama said in the 14-minute address to the nation from the White House on Wednesday evening.

"ISIL poses a threat to the people of Iraq and Syria, and the broader Middle East - including American citizens, personnel and facilities," Obama said. "If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region - including to the United States."

Obama said he would approve the expansion of airstrikes into Syria.

"I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as in Iraq," Obama said. "This is a core principle of my presidency - if you threaten America, you will find no safe haven."

Obama also warned that there will be risks to leading a coalition against ISIL, "especially to our service men and women." However, Obama said "this is American leadership at its best."

In a statement after the speech, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said: "The men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces are ready to carry out the orders of our commander-in-chief, to work with our partners across government, and to work with our friends and allies around the world to accomplish this mission."

Obama sought to make a clear distinction between his plan and the policies of former President George W. Bush by again stating that no U.S. ground combat forces would be involved.

"I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan," Obama said. "It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil."

"This counter-terrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground," Obama said.

The President said the new plan would be modeled on "the one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years," although Al Qaida-linked terror groups in both Yemen and Somalia are still carrying out attacks.

Obama's use of the term "counter-terrorism" was echoed prior to the speech by senior administration officials who spoke on background.

The officials also repeatedly spoke of counter-terrorism in what appeared to be another effort to separate the administration from the counter-insurgency strategy that involved large numbers of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Under the new strategy to go on offense, a senior administration official said, "we will go after ISIL wherever they are and that includes Syria."

However, the official said that the "next phase" of the campaign against ISIL would involve what would in effect be close air support for Iraqi and Kurdish forces to enable them to roll back ISIL gains in Iraq.

Bombing ISIL strongholds in Syria would likely come later, the official said, but he would not put a timetable on expanding the air campaign.

The senior official said that the 475 troops being sent to Iraq would primarily be involved in training and equipping Iraqi and Kurdish forces but they also would be used in "developing targets," suggesting they would be moving with local forces to call in airstrikes.

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has previously spoken of the possibility that U.S. troops could "embed" with Iraqi forces as advisors once Iraq had formed a unified government to overcome sectarian tensions.

However, the senior official stressed that "these will not be troops introduced into combat in Iraq." The senior officials did not indicate where the troops would come from, or whether they would be Special Forces, but previous U.S. troop re-inforcements have come from U.S. Central Command.

Earlier, the Pentagon said that about 1,043 U.S. troops were currently in Iraq and were primarily involved in security duties at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and at the Baghdad airport, and at Joint Operations Centers in Baghdad and Irbil.

Prior to the speech, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-California, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said that totally ruling out "boots on the ground" would be a mistake.

In what he called a "fact sheet" on defeating ISIL, McKeon said "it is misleading to suggest that the use of any American forces on the ground is akin to 'serial occupation.' "

McKeon said that efforts against ISIL "will not require American boots on the ground in 'surge' level numbers, but anyone who suggests a minimalist approach will be successful is not being clear-eyed about the challenge and resiliency of ISIL."

Obama's speech came a week after he took heated criticism for saying at a news conference that "we don't have a strategy yet" for defeating ISIL. White House and Pentagon officials hurriedly tried to clarify Obama's remarks, saying there was not yet a strategy for dealing with ISIL in Syria.

Ahead of Obama's speech, the Pentagon gave its first detailed account of the airstrikes against ISIL that began on Aug. 8. U.S. warplanes had conducted 154 airstrikes through Wednesday morning in Iraq that hit a total of 212 targets, including 162 vehicles, the Pentagon said.

The list of targets destroyed included 88 armed vehicles, 37 Humvees, 12 armored personnel carriers, two tanks, one Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle, one construction vehicle and 21 miscellaneous vehicles, the Pentagon said.

The senior administration officials, speaking on background, said that the pace of the airstrikes in Iraq could now be doubled or tripled to allow Iraqi and Kurdish forces to take back territory from ISIL.

The Pentagon has declined to estimate the cost of the operations in Iraq thus far beyond giving a general figure that the costs have been about $7.5 million daily since June 16, when Obama authorized sending 300 mostly Special Forces troops from Central Command to Iraq to assess the abilities of the Iraqi national security forces.

The $7.5 million figure would put the costs above $700 million since June 16 for the airstrikes, intelligence and surveillance flights, humanitarian relief, arms shipments and the deployment of hundreds of troops to set up Joint Operations Centers in Baghdad and Irbil.

The White House and the Pentagon have said that the costs of current operations in Iraq could be paid for out of existing accounts, but added that they would likely have to go to Congress for additional funding in Fiscal Year 2015.

Also ahead of the speech, Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Baghdad to show support for the new government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

"We stand by Iraq," Kerry said after a series of meetings with Abadi and ministers of the new government that has pledged to heal the Sunni-Shia rift in Iraq. "And we stand by them as they fight to overcome their single greatest threat."

The U.S. spent about $25 billion on training and equipping the Iraqi forces before U.S. troops withdrew at the end of 2011, but Kerry said the U.S. was prepared for another round of training and equipping the Iraqis.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said that ISIL posed no imminent threat to the U.S. homeland, but he warned that efforts to degrade and defeat the well-funded terrorist group would be prolonged.

In remarks to the Council on Foreign Relations Wednesday, Johnson said that the estimated 10,000 fighters in the terrorist group were carrying out 40 attacks daily in Iraq and Syria, and were taking in $1 million daily in black market oil revenue.

Both critics and supporters of the administration have called on Obama to seek authorization from Congress for expanded operations, and also for additional funding, but there was opposition in both the House and Senate to taking a controversial vote before the midterm elections in November.

On the Senate floor Wednesday, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, urged Obama to seek an authorization vote immediately. "It's totally preposterous that he would not seek our authority" before launching a wider war, Corker said of Obama.

Corker also called on his colleagues to have the political courage to take a vote.

"A lot of people around here are saying they don't want to deal with it before the election," Corker said. "Are you kidding me?"

The senior administration officials said Obama would welcome Congressional support but "we do not believe the President needs authorization." Obama had the authority to act under the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) Act that was enacted shortly after the 9/11 attacks, the officials said.

However, the senior officials said that Obama was asking Congress to approve $500 million to support the Free Syrian Army opposition in Syria to fight ISIL and also the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

-- Associate Editor Bryant Jordan contributed to this report.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@monster.com

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