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Congress Likely to Back War Chest to Fight ISIS

Congress will likely pass the White House's separate war-funding request to battle Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria despite some lawmakers' concerns over strategy, an analyst said.

The Obama administration requested $5.6 billion to conduct military operations against the extremist group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. Most of the money would go to the Defense Department.

That's in addition to the Pentagon's fiscal 2015 defense budget of about $554 billion, including a base budget of $496 billion and a war budget of about $59 billion. Congress hasn't yet approved the spending plan for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.

"I think it will pass because the operations are already ongoing," Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former assistant secretary of defense, said in an interview. "The people who don't like it want to do more," he added, referring to Republican lawmakers. "Very few people want to do less."

The Islamic State recently beheaded the American aid worker and former Army Ranger Peter Kassig, the latest in a series of executions of Western prisoners.

The U.S. since June has spent about $1 billion launching airstrikes against the al-Qaeda-inspired group. The attacks, which began in Iraq and expanded into Syria, have helped to thwart the organization's gains, though militants still control vast parts of northern and western Iraq and eastern Syria, officials say.

"Our campaign against ISIL has made progress," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said last week in testimony to the House Armed Services Committee, referring to another acronym for the group. "ISIL's advance in parts of Iraq has stalled, and in some cases been reversed, by Iraqi, Kurdish, and tribal forces supported by U.S. and coalition airstrikes."

The U.S. has about 1,400 troops in Iraq, most of whom are serving as advisers to Iraqi and Kurdish forces in Baghdad and Erbil. President Barack Obama this month authorized the deployment of up to 1,500 more troops to better advise -- and train -- Iraqi forces.

Republicans such as Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, a Republican from California and the retiring chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, have criticized the commander-in-chief for refusing to deploy combat troops to the region.

"How can you successfully execute the mission you’ve been given – to 'degrade and ultimately destroy' ISIL – when some of your best options are taken off the table?" McKeon asked Hagel during last week's hearing. "Mr. Secretary, both of your predecessors, Bob Gates and Leon Panetta, have stated that we need boots on the ground if there's to be any hope of success in the strategy."

McKeon added, "Even Coach 'K' – Duke's basketball coach – told an Army conference last month that declaring we won't use ground forces is like telling your opponent you're not going to play your best players," referring to Mike Krzyzewski, a West Point graduate.

Korb noted the administration has the support of a majority of Americans who oppose another U.S.-led ground war in the region. While six in 10 approve of U.S. military action against Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria, some 54 percent oppose sending American ground troops there, according to a Sept. 20-21 Gallup poll.

Of the $5 billion in additional OCO funding for Iraq and Syria, $3.4 billion would be used for military operations under Operation Inherent Resolve and $1.6 billion would go toward the training and equipping of Iraqi forces in support of offensive operations against the militants slated for next year.

While Korb said lawmakers will probably support the funding request, he also said they don't really need to because the existing OCO budget could easily support such operations. "There's a lot of stuff in there that doesn't belong in there," said Korb, who recently wrote an op-ed for U.S. News & World Report titled, "Don't Buy the Defense Hawks' Budget Bellyaching."

McKeon and Sen. Carl Levin, the retiring chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, are pushing to have both chambers approve the annual defense authorization bill known as the National Defense Authorization Act by the end of the year.

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