WASHINGTON —In a major reversal, President Barack Obama moved Wednesday night to deepen the U.S. military role in the volatile Middle East, vowing to wage an unrelenting counterterror effort using airstrikes to target Islamic State fighters in both Iraq and Syria.
Obama was to outline his strategy, which also includes training and arming Syrian rebels, in a high-stakes address to the nation. In excerpts released in advance by the White House, Obama said the objective is to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State group.
“This counterterrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground,” Obama said, using an alternative name for the group.
Until now, the U.S. launched airstrikes against the group only within the borders of Iraq, whose government invited the American military to take that step. But officials have said in recent days that the Islamic State, which also controls territory in Syria, must be viewed as one group, not two separate entities split by a border.
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Ahead of Obama’s remarks, congressional leaders grappled with whether to support his request to arm the Syrian opposition and if so, how to get such a measure through the fractured legislature before the November elections.
Obama’s plans amount to a striking shift for a president who has steadfastly sought to wind down American military campaigns in the Middle East and avoid new wars. That stance has been notable in Syria, where Islamic State militants have taken advantage of the instability created by a three-year civil war and now operate freely in areas near and across the Iraqi border.
“I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Obama said. “It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.”
Closer to home, U.S. officials fear that Westerners who have joined the militant group could return to their own countries and launch attacks. However, officials said Wednesday they were not aware of a credible threat of a potential attack in the United States by the Islamic State.
Earlier this summer, Iraq’s government asked the U.S. for help in confronting the militants, and Obama approved airstrikes within Iraq’s borders to protect U.S. personnel there and to help alleviate humanitarian crises. That air campaign has expanded significantly in recent days, with the military hitting targets in western Iraq, closer to the border of Syria.
Separately, the White House announced Wednesday that it was providing $25 million in immediate military assistance to the Iraqi government as part of efforts to combat the Islamic State.
Adamantly opposed to putting American combat troops on the ground, Obama will call for increased training of Iraqi security forces and the provision of arms shipments to vetted Syrian opposition fighters in order to help both groups in their fight against the militants.
Some of Obama’s own advisers, including former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, pressed him to arm the rebels early in their fight against Syrian President Bashar Assad. But Obama resisted, arguing that there was too much uncertainty about the composition of the rebel forces. He also expressed concern about adding more firepower to an already bloody civil war.
The president eventually approved a small CIA-run program to arm the rebels, but the effort he now seeks is broader and would be run by the Pentagon in countries near Syria’s borders. Obama asked Congress for approval of such a program earlier this year, but the plan stalled on Capitol Hill.
In the hours before the president’s remarks, the Treasury Department said that Obama’s strategy would include stepped-up efforts to undermine the Islamic State group’s finances. David Cohen, Treasury’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, wrote in a blog post that the U.S. would be working with other countries, especially Gulf states, to cut off the group’s external funding networks and its access to the global financial system.
Meanwhile, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden called lawmakers to press them to include authorization for the program in temporary funding legislation. Lisa Monaco, Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, was also briefing lawmakers on Capitol Hill about the train-and-equip measure, administration officials said.
House Republicans put up a potential roadblock by not including the measure in the funding legislation. But it was unclear whether Republicans were rejecting the request completely or would leave open another avenue.
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the Nevada Democrat might opt to seek separate legislation to authorize the president’s request.
For Obama, Wednesday’s address was also a chance to show critics who accuse him of being too hesitant in the face of overseas crises that he has a robust plan for defeating the militants. Republicans have accused him of ignoring months of warnings about the threat posed by the Islamic State, and even Democratic allies have grumbled in recent days that Obama has been slow in striking back after the militants released videos of the beheadings of two American journalists in Syria.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell called Obama “a rather reluctant commander in chief” and urged him to outline a military strategy to defeat the terrorists and to specify any funding and authorization he needs.
“It’s pretty clear to me at least that the American people fully appreciate the nature of this threat,” McConnell said. “After the beheadings of two American citizens, they don’t want an explanation of what’s happening. They want a plan. They want some presidential leadership.”
In a shift for a war-weary nation, new polls suggest the American people would support a sustained air campaign in the Middle East. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Monday showed 71 percent of Americans support airstrikes in Iraq, up from 54 percent just three weeks ago. And 65 percent say they support extending airstrikes into Syria.
The U.S. has also been pressing allies in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere to help.
France’s foreign minister said Wednesday that his country was ready to take part in airstrikes against extremist fighters in Iraq if needed. And the German government announced that it was sending assault rifles, ammunition, anti-tank weapons and armored vehicles to Kurdish forces in Iraq fighting, breaking with Berlin’s previous reluctance to send weapons into conflicts.
Obama also worked the phones with foreign leaders Wednesday, calling Saudi King Abdullah ahead of a gathering of Arab leaders on their contributions to a global coalition against the Islamic State.
Secretary of State John Kerry is traveling to Saudi Arabia and Jordan this week. He first made a stop in Baghdad to meet with Iraq’s new leaders and pledge U.S. support for eliminating the extremist group.
JULIE PACE, AP White House Correspondent
Associated Press writers Donna Cassata, Andrew Taylor and Josh Lederman contributed to this report.