President Barack Obama will use a speech to the nation on Wednesday to present his case for launching a U.S.-led offensive against Sunni militants gaining ground in the Middle East, seeking to rally support for a broad military mission while reassuring the public he is not plunging U.S. forces into another Iraq war.
“I’m preparing the country to make sure that we deal with a threat from” the Islamic State, Obama said in an interview broadcast Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“What I want people to understand,” he said, “is that over the course of months, we are going to be able to not just blunt the momentum” of the militants. “We are going to systematically degrade their capabilities; we’re going to shrink the territory that they control; and, ultimately, we’re going to defeat them,” he added.
The speech suggests that the president may be moving closer to a decision on whether to expand the month-old air campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq into Syria, and it is Obama’s latest attempt to answer critics who charge that he lacks a viable plan or the fortitude to go after the group.
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The president was adamant that he had no intention of sending U.S. combat troops to go after the Islamic State, repeating no fewer than three times during the interview that he would not do so, and calling the idea of putting United States boots on the ground “a profound mistake.”
The president said he planned to meet with congressional leaders Tuesday to outline his strategy, but suggested he did not need a vote to move forward with his campaign against the Islamic State, saying he was “confident” that he has the authorization he needs. Still, Obama hinted that he might ask for more money for the mission, saying, “It’s going to require some resources, I suspect, above what we are currently doing in the region.”
Such a request would trigger a congressional debate and vote, and it could hinder another of Obama’s vows: to cut the Pentagon budget.
Meanwhile, the United States launched a new series of airstrikes against Sunni fighters in Iraq late Saturday in what Defense Department officials described as a mission to stop militants from seizing an important dam on the Euphrates River and prevent the possibility of floodwaters being unleashed toward the capital, Baghdad.
The attacks were aimed at militant fighters of the Islamic State as they were moving toward the Haditha Dam, officials said.
Administration officials nonetheless stressed the strikes around the Haditha Dam, about 175 miles from Baghdad, were within the constraints of what Obama initially characterized as a limited campaign to break the Islamic State siege.
“I think the strikes the United States took are very much in line with what President Obama said were the guiding principles of military action in Iraq,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said during a news conference while in Tbilisi, Georgia, for talks. Hagel said that if Islamic State fighters seized or destroyed the dam, “the damage that would cause would be very significant and it would put a significant, additional and big risk into the mix in Iraq.”
The Syrian government also has increased airstrikes on the Islamic State in recent months after it took over government military outposts in the northeastern province of Raqqa. Raids by Syrian warplanes in Raqqa on Saturday killed at least 25 people as government forces continued air attacks on territory controlled by the Islamic State.
Helene Cooper of The New York Times contributed to this report.