LONDON -- Prime Minister David Cameron appealed to lawmakers Wednesday to authorize the British military to take part in airstrikes in Syria, insisting that Britain should help degrade and destroy the threat posed by the Islamic State group.
But on a day meant to convey national unity, Cameron struggled to even get through his opening remarks, as outraged opposition Labour Party lawmakers demanded he retract remarks reportedly made at a closed-door meeting in which he branded opponents a "bunch of terrorist sympathizers."
Lawmakers demanded an apology as the 10½-hour debate got underway in the House of Commons, arguing the comment showed a lack of respect to those who disagreed with his policies.
"Everyone in this House should make up their mind on the arguments in this House and there's honor in voting for, there's honor in voting against," Cameron said, stopping short of saying he was sorry.
The last-minute dispute threatened to erode the comfortable majority Cameron was relying on when he sought to authorize the Royal Air Force to launch airstrikes against suspected Islamic State positions inside Syria. Britain is already part of the U.S.-led coalition, but has restricted its actions to Iraq.
"This is not about whether we want to fight terrorism, it's about how best we do that," Cameron said. "The question is this: do we work with our allies to degrade and destroy this threat and do we go after these terrorists in their heartlands, from where they are plotting to kill British people? Or do we sit back and wait for them to attack us?"
The British debate comes as U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the U.S. military will deploy a new special operations force to be sent to Iraq to step up the fight against the militants. President Barack Obama had previously announced he was sending fewer than 50 special operations forces to Syria, but Carter said Tuesday the new expeditionary force will be larger. He did not provide force strength details.
The British vote is important in that it reflects another step in building an international consensus against the Islamic State group — something that had not been possible before the bombing of a Russian jetliner and the Paris attacks in recent weeks, said Jill Sargent Russell, an expert on warfare, politics and strategy at King's College London.
"We haven't had a broad political consensus on Syria, which is why no one has been able to act effectively," she said. "If there is a wide political consensus, there is a real chance that something sensible can be done and achieved."
Despite talk of increased cooperation among many nations, there were signs of serious fault lines and tensions between Russia and Turkey following the shooting down of a Russian military jet by Turkish forces — and between Russia and the United States, which disagree about tactics in Syria.
Russia's deputy defense minister said Wednesday the Turkish president and his family are benefiting from illegal oil trade with Islamic State militants. Anatoly Antonov and his colleagues at the defense ministry's headquarters showed foreign defense attaches based in Moscow some satellite images purporting to show IS transporting oil to Turkey.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan quickly denied the claims about Islamic State, also known as Daesh, in remarks at Qatar University.
"No one has the right to make such a slander as to suggest that Turkey buys Daesh's oil," he said. "Turkey has not lost its moral values as to buy oil from a terror organization."
Meanwhile, the top NATO commander in Europe, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, has cautioned that the bulk of Russia's air operations in Syria are still directed against moderate opposition forces and forces that oppose President Bashar Assad, not Islamic State positions.
U.S. officials had hoped Russia would change its bombing focus in light of the October attack on the airliner.
Breedlove said Wednesday there has been some shift in Russian tactics lately but that the "vast majority of their sorties" are targeting moderate groups, not Islamic State extremists operating there who are the main target of U.S. raids.
He said coalition forces "are not working with or cooperating with Russia in Syria" but have devised safety routines to make it easier for both groups.
Associated Press writer Suzan Frazer in Ankara, Deb Riechmann in Washington, Jamey Keaten in Brussels and Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad contributed.