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Obama Tells the Nation That America Is Going Back to War in Iraq

In his first primetime speech in a year, President Barack Obama announced his plan to battle the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria.
Photo by Saul Loeb/AP

The United States is headed back to war in Iraq, but it won't be the type of war waged during President George W. Bush's time in office.

As President Barack Obama told the nation in a televised 15-minute address given on the eve of the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, there won't be any American boots on the ground.

"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."


But Obama and top officials in his administration made it abundantly clear that a war will nevertheless be waged against the Islamic State, which has captured large swaths of territory in Northern Iraq and Syria, slaughtering thousands of people in the process.

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The US will lead a "relentless" military campaign to "degrade and destroy" the group — typically referred to as ISIL by the President and other lawmakers and officials — that will rely heavily on air power. For the first time, the US will conduct targeted air strikes inside Syria.

A senior administration official, during a background briefing call with reporters before Obama's speech, said airstrikes in Syria will be conducted at a "time and place of our choosing."

"We are actively working on different options that have been developed by the Pentagon," he said. "This is something that the President has decided to do. We will take action on the Syrian side of the border to degrade ISIL. But we're not going to telegraph our punches by being specific about the time and nature of the target. We will do that as necessary, as we develop targets and as we continue what is a systematic air campaign that is not going to be restricted by a geographic border that, frankly, has very little meaning anymore, given ISIL's operations in both Iraq and Syria."


Obama unveiled a counterterrorism strategy that he said is supported by dozens of "coalition" partners to "roll back this terrorist threat."

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The effort will be similar to the administration's ongoing campaigns against al Qaeda terrorists in Somalia and Yemen, which Obama said have been "successful," but which have been criticized both for not eradicating regional terrorist organizations and for resulting in the deaths of a large number of civilians.

The timetable will be open-ended. In his speech, Obama said his strategy consists of four parts: air strikes, support of other forces battling the militants, counterterrorism efforts to prevent attacks and weaken the Islamic State, and continued humanitarian assistance to civilians.

"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.

The horrific videos of Foley's and Sotloff's beheadings no doubt resonated with the 61 percent of the American public who support a US-led military campaign to defeat the Islamic State.

While it would appear that the turning point that led the Obama administration to launch its war against the Islamic State was the beheading of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and the gruesome videos that accompanied the killings, a senior administration official told reporters during the background briefing call that the decision had more to do with the formation of a new Iraqi government.


"The President said that he would be prepared to do more, only after Iraq's political leaders made the decision to form the kind of inclusive government that would unite that country so that they could face the existential threat that they had been confronted with," the official said, challenging public statements by some Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike who had criticized Obama for not having a plan to take on Islamic State militants. "Earlier this week, the Iraqi cabinet was appointed, and we saw a functioning, inclusive, diverse, central government take hold. And the President all along has set that up as the key to the next step of our strategy … We're now ready to shift to the next phase of our strategy, to ultimately accomplish our goal of degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL."

Taking an apparent shot at the Bush administration's Iraq strategy, the official added that Obama started planning for attacks against the militants last June.

"It's important to remember, back in June, when ISIL first made their pretty dramatic advance across western and northern Iraq, that the President had a pretty immediate reaction," he said, highlighting air strikes, humanitarian aid and the "military advisers" who Obama sent to Iraq to assess the situation. "I think it's very clear with this President that he does not shoot first and ask questions later. He is going to take the time to get it right, precisely because it is important to our national security. So we were appropriately deliberate in developing intelligence and reviewing options, and consulting with European and Arab and other partners around the world to get a sense of the coalition that we could put together and get a sense of the types of targets that we could pursue in Iraq and in Syria as well."


The horrific videos of Foley's and Sotloff's beheadings, however, no doubt resonated with the 61 percent of the American public who, according to recent polls, support a US-led military campaign to defeat the Islamic State.

Obama last gave a primetime speech exactly one year ago — September 10, 2013 — when he made a case for military action in Syria after images of hundreds of dead men, women, and children surfaced. US officials said it was evidence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people.

However, polls at the time revealed that support for US intervention in Syria stood at just 21 percent.

During the background briefing call, officials said that Obama does not need congressional approval to shift from a humanitarian campaign in Iraq that began on August 8 to an offensive strategy. (The US has thus far conducted a total of 153 air strikes in Iraq as part of the campaign.)

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The official said Obama has the constitutional authority to direct air strikes "to deal with the threat from ISIL," previously known as Al Qaeda in Iraq, under the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) — a 60-word piece of legislation that Congress passed in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks giving the President permission to use all "necessary and appropriate force" against anyone he believed "planned, authorized, committed, or aided" the 9/11 attacks.


The Obama administration has used the 2001 AUMF to justify its drone wars in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere. It is set to expire, however, when the US leaves Afghanistan.

The senior administration official said Congress could pass a "new limited" AUMF that would specifically address the threat from the Islamic State. "But, to be clear, we do not believe the President needs that new authorization in order to take sustained action against ISIL."

Hours before his speech, Obama authorized Secretary of State John Kerry to use to $25 million under the Foreign Assistance Act to train, educate, and provide military assistance to the government of Iraq and to the Kurdistan Regional Government in support of their fight against the Islamic State. Obama said he plans to send 475 US troops over the next week to assist with the training, bringing the total who have been deployed in the country to about 1,600.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said the additional military personnel will "advise and assist the Iraqi Security Forces in order to help them go on the offense against ISIL; conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance flights to increase US capacity to target ISIL; and coordinate the activities of the US military across Iraq."

During the reconstruction of Iraq, the US spent $20 billion to train and equip hundreds of thousands of Iraqi security force personnel. But, in cities like Mosul, they dropped their weapons and abandoned their posts as Islamic State fighters approached.


Now, some of them will apparently be retrained. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said since January the US has provided Iraq Security Forces with hundreds of Hellfire missiles "thousands of helicopter-fired rockets, thousands of rounds of tank ammunition, thousands of machine guns, grenades, flares, sniper rifles, and M16 and M4 rifles."

"Additional equipment and support is now needed to bolster Iraqi forces, including Kurdistan Regional Government forces, to combat ISIL," Harf said in a statement to reporters.

Earlier in the day, Kerry traveled to Baghdad to discuss the newly installed Iraqi government and the administration's effort to build support for military action against the Islamic State from a coalition of countries.

Kerry said nearly 40 other countries are providing military and humanitarian support "to aid the campaign against ISIL," but he made clear that the US would not cooperate with Iran, which is taking its own actions against the group.

"Whatever they do is collateral and on their own," Kerry said.

Obama is also seeking authorization from Congress to fund the training of Syrian opposition forces who will be vetted by the CIA and trained by US special forces in Saudi Arabia.

Lawmakers were reluctant to weigh in on the president's plans until after his remarks. But on Tuesday, Obama met with House Speaker John Boehner, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to outline his plans.


In a Senate floor speech Wednesday, McConnell said he would throw his support behind Obama if he "develops a regional strategy, builds a combat-effective military coalition, and explains how his strategy will lead to the defeat of ISIL."

"I believe he'll have significant congressional support," McConnell said.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, issued a statement following Obama's speech saying he has won her support.

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"Now that a strategy has been outlined, it is critical that Congress and the American people come together in solidarity to support the President and our armed forces," Feinstein said. "On such an important matter of national security, we must show ISIL we have the political will, the military might, and the strength of a united country. In my 14 years on the Senate Intelligence Committee, I have not seen a terrorist organization with the brutality and capabilities of ISIL."

While the Islamic State is a threat to the stability of the Middle East, it is not an immediate threat to the US itself.

"We have not yet detected specific plotting against the homeland," the administration official said.

In two weeks Obama will chair a United Nations Security Council meeting where the focus will be on foreign fighters, intelligence sharing, and working with Interpol and other law enforcement "to make sure we have the right defenses in place and protocols in place to cut off this flow and this pipeline of fighters going into and out of the region."

Follow Jason Leopold on Twitter: @JasonLeopold