WASHINGTON (AFP) – Barack Obama and US lawmakers ratcheted up the pressure on the Islamic State (IS) Wednesday, with the president declaring there was no hiding place for the radical militants and warning: “Our reach is long.”
After Obama spoke at MacDill Air Force Base, the House of Representatives voted 273 to 156 to approve his plan to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels, a key part of his strategy to destroy the IS group.
Obama was keen to project a sternly determined mood at the Florida air base, the headquarters of US Central Command, which oversees military action in the Middle East.
He met military commanders to discuss how to defeat the so-called “Islamic State” group – a powerful extremist organisation – while keeping America out of another protracted conflict in the Middle East. Obama has consistently said he will not put US “boots on the ground” despite the IS organisation – which the US estimates has 20,000 to 31,000 fighters – grabbing vast areas of Iraq and Syria in a offensive that has seen beheadings and forced religious conversions.
Two American reporters and a Briton were executed on camera by a masked IS militant, provoking revulsion and condemnation.
US President Barack Obama greets Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel (C) and General Lloyd Austin, commander of US Central Command, as he arrives on stage to speak during a visit to the US Central Command at the MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida – AFP
Obama, who last week vowed to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the IS group, stood firm on his pledge that a US combat mission was not in the cards – but insisted the militants would be defeated.
“The American forces that have been deployed to Iraq do not and will not have a combat mission,” Obama stressed. His comments came after America’s top officer General Martin Dempsey suggested military advisors might provide counsel to Iraqi troops in “close combat,” sparking hand-wringing in Washington about “mission creep.”
“Our reach is long. If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven. We will find you eventually,” Obama said. Last week he ordered expanded air strikes against the IS organisation in Iraq and said the US was prepared to launch air raids on the militants in neighbouring Syria.
He again emphasised the broad-based nature of the US-led coalition to defeat the militants, and noted that Saudi Arabia had agreed to host a US mission for training moderate Syrian rebels.
Some 40 countries are backing the coalition to defeat IS, but there was a prominent dissenting voice in the form of Iran, with President Hassan Rouhani criticising Washington’s refusal to send in ground troops.
In Washington, lawmakers voted to authorise the training and arming of vetted Syrian rebels to combat the militants, a move Obama hailed as “an important step forward.”
Lawmakers backed the president despite the misgivings of war-weary Democrats that the move could open the door to full-blown American intervention and concern from conservatives that the plan falls short of what is needed.
The measure was included as an amendment to a stop-gap federal spending measure which also easily passed the Republican-dominated House. The overall bill now shifts to the Senate, where leaders are confident it will pass on Thursday and head to the president for his signature. Expanded air strikes are already turning up the heat on Islamic State fighters, who have declared a “caliphate” straddling Iraq and Syria and claimed leadership of a global anti-Western battle.
US forces carried out seven air strikes Tuesday and Wednesday in Iraq, Central Command said, using what it called “a mix of fighter, attack and remotely piloted aircraft.”
Four of the strikes were southwest of the capital Baghdad, destroying several small IS ground units and a small boat on the Euphrates River that was re-supplying rebel forces in the area.