President Barack Obama said on Saturday the United States and allies will “defeat” Islamic State militants in Iraq although he cautioned that no American ground troops would return to the country.
In an interview with NBC News’ Meet the Press that was aired on Sunday, the president promised to outline his strategy for defeating the Iraqi militant group in a speech on Wednesday, a day after consulting with congressional leaders.
“We are going to systematically degrade their capabilities,” Obama said. “We’re going to shrink the territory that they control. And ultimately, we’re going to defeat them.”
On the day of the broadcast, American warplanes carried out four strikes against insurgents menacing Iraq’s Haditha Dam — the country’s second largest hydroelectric facility that provides millions with water.
Last month, strikes by American fighter planes and unmanned drones enabled Iraqi and Kurdish fighters to retake the Mosul Dam, Iraq’s largest, after it had been overran by Islamic State insurgents.
Opposition Republicans, some of whom have called for more forceful American intervention in Iraq as the country once again seems engulfed in a civil war, have criticized Obama after he admitted during a news conference last week that the United States didn’t “have a strategy yet” for dealing with the Islamic State.
The group, which advocates a puritanical interpretation of Islam and has massacred hundreds, if not thousands, of nonbelievers, rules swathes of territory in an arc from Aleppo in Syria to near the western edge of Baghdad, Iraq’s capital. Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has proclaimed himself to be the “caliph” — the historic title of the successors of the Prophet Muhammad who ruled the entire Muslim world.
Although Obama said the Islamic State did not have designs to attack America, he warned that foreign jihadists, joining the war from Europe, might one day pose a “serious threat” to his country.
“I just want the American people to understand the nature of the threat and how we’re going to deal with it and to have confidence that we’ll be able to deal with it,” he said. “The next phase is now to start going on some offense.”
Obama, who withdrew America’s troops from Iraq in late 2011 after almost nine years of war there, stressed, “this is not the equivalent of the Iraq War.” Rather, he said, the mission will be “similar to the kinds of counterterrorism campaigns that we’ve been engaging in consistently over the last five, six, seven years.”
“We are going to be a part of an international coalition, carrying out airstrikes in support of work on the ground by Iraqi troops, Kurdish troops.”
At a NATO summit in Wales over the weekend, a “core” group of nine American allies — Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Turkey — agreed to support military action in Iraq.
Britain, France and Germany, Europe’s leading military powers, promised to support especially the Iraqi Kurds last month, providing them with equipment to fight off the insurgents.
The reluctance of neutral Austria, Ireland and Sweden, which are not in NATO, prevented the European Union from adopting a single policy.
In his interview with Meet the Press, Obama called on friendly Arab states in the region to “step up” and help put down Iraq’s insurgency. For “perhaps the first time,” he said, “you have absolute clarity that the problem for Sunni states in the region, many of whom are our allies, is not simply Iran. It’s not simply a Sunni-Shia issue,” he said.
Many of the Arab Sunni states that are aligned to the United States, most notably Saudi Arabia, have been wary of Obama’s outreach to Shia Iran, their nemesis, and disappointed by his refusal to back the largely Sunni uprising in Syria against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, an Iranian ally.
Obama said the formation a new, more inclusive government in Baghdad should also help to blunt the Islamic State’s momentum.
The United States blamed the country’s previous leader, Nouri al-Maliki, for driving Iraq’s alienated Sunni minority into revolt, even though they had helped him to power in 2006.
Maliki’s close relations with Iran and his exclusionary policies in favor of members of his own sect convinced some Sunni Arab militias and tribes to join the Islamic State’s insurgency — or at least not to stand in its way.