Obama Says U.S. Taking Fight to Islamic State With Urgency

  • President defends approach as criticism comes from Congress
  • U.S. military strikes targeting group's leaders, oil resources

President Barack Obama said the U.S. is focusing its firepower on Islamic State’s core in Syria and Iraq and pushing allies in the region to contribute more to the fight as his strategy against the extremist group comes under fire in Congress and on the campaign trail.

U.S. and allied forces have killed several top Islamic State leaders and are targeting the group’s oil resources and its ability to recruit fighters, Obama said in remarks from the Pentagon on Monday. He said the U.S.-led coalition has launched almost 9,000 airstrikes on the extremists and in November dropped the most bombs in its 16-month campaign in Iraq and Syria. 

“Our strategy is moving forward with a great sense of urgency,” Obama said after meeting at the Defense Department with his national security team. “We are hitting ISIL harder than ever.”

The president is confronting criticism from U.S. lawmakers and Republican presidential contenders that his administration isn’t taking the Islamic State threat seriously enough, even after deadly terrorist attacks in Paris and California that were either directed or inspired by the extremist group.

Ground Gains

He said Monday the allied effort against Islamic State has begun to yield progress on the ground, causing the extremists to relinquish thousands of square miles of territory in Syria that they had once controlled. In Iraq, the group has lost 40 percent of the land it once held, he said.

Obama again listed a stepped-up campaign of air strikes and special forces deployments to hit Islamic State strongholds in Iraq and Syria to retake some of the territory the group has held. But he offered no new plans for action or strategic shifts and warned that the battle will be long. He said Defense Secretary Ashton Carter will be heading to the Middle East for meetings with allies to persuade them to put more resources into the fight.

The goal of airstrikes by the U.S., France and the U.K., largely has been to blunt Islamic State’s capability to take additional territory, roll back its gains, destroy equipment and personnel and provide support for Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces. The U.S. also is focusing on efforts to find and kill Islamic State’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who has gone into hiding.

Public’s Fears

The attacks in Paris and San Bernardino have heightened public fears about terrorists striking beyond the battlefield in the Middle East. Obama’s remarks on Monday, which follow an address to the nation on the threat of terrorism eight days ago, were part of an effort to reassure Americans during the holiday season. He’s scheduled to be briefed Thursday at the National Counterterrorism Center on efforts to prevent attacks in the U.S.

“As we squeeze its heart we will make it harder for ISIL to pump its terror and propaganda to the rest of the world,” Obama said, using an alternative acronym for Islamic State. “ISIL leaders cannot hide and our next message to them is simple: “You are next.”’

Obama also emphasized that the fight on the ground must be carried out by local forces and allies in the region. That’s one of the reasons Carter is leaving Monday for the Middle East and Secretary of State John Kerry is heading for talks in Vienna aimed at crafting a political resolution to the civil war in Syria.

McCain Criticism

Republican Senator John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a frequent critic of Obama’s Islamic State strategy, said in a Twitter message Monday that the president’s appearance shows “it’s business as usual” for the administration. 

Some of Obama’s Democratic allies in Congress have joined their Republican colleagues in calling for more action against the militant group. At a hearing last week, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York urged the administration to press Sunni allies to do more in the fight, and Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said he wants "to see our strategy become more aggressive and intensified.”

Many of the Republicans running for the party’s presidential nomination have been giving national security and terrorism more emphasis after the Dec. 2 mass shooting in San Bernardino that left 14 people dead. The couple who carried out the attack were Muslims who were inspired if not directed by Islamic State, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

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