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Obama to outline plan to combat Islamic State, eyes strikes in Syria

Ahead of president’s speech detailing broader military and political effort, Kerry visits Middle East allies

President Barack Obama is expected Wednesday to announce a broader political and military strategy to combat Islamic State fighters in the Middle East, potentially extending airstrikes from Iraq across the border to Syria — a move officials have indicated may be made even without congressional approval.

The president's plan, to be outlined in a televised address, will also include steps to ramp up support to Syrian opposition forces currently fighting President Bashar al-Assad and the Islamic State, officials have said. In outlining expanded plans to stem the tide of Islamic State gains, Obama is also likely to offer increased support for Iraqi security forces as well as military and diplomatic commitments from partners in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere. Ahead of Wednesday's announcement, Secretary of State John Kerry made an unannounced stop in Baghdad to holds talks with leaders there over the plan to combat the Islamic State.

Some of the action being proposed will be put to Congress. But after an hourlong discussion with House and Senate leaders Tuesday, the White House said Obama told the lawmakers that he "has the authority he needs to take action" against the armed group. The White House added that the president still would welcome action from Congress that would "aid the overall effort and demonstrate to the world that the United States is united in defeating the threat."

For Obama, a sustained U.S. intervention in the Middle East is at odds with the vision he had for the region when he ran for president on a pledge to end the war in Iraq, where the role of American fighting forces drew to a close nearly three years ago. His announcement Wednesday night is scheduled just hours before anniversary commemorations of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Among the president’s most urgent priorities will be seeking authorization from Congress to arm more moderate elements of the Syrian opposition fighting Assad. Obama asked lawmakers earlier this year for a $500 million train-and-equip program, but the plan stalled on Capitol Hill.

The U.S. has been running a smaller CIA program to train the rebels, but he is seeking approval for a more signifiant military effort that could involve staging training locations in countries near Syria.

With Obama ruling out sending U.S. ground troops into combat in Iraq or Syria, bolstering the capacity of the Iraqi security forces and Syrian opposition will be crucial to efforts to root out the Islamic State, which has moved freely across the porous border between the two countries. U.S. officials hope airstrikes might help give the forces in both countries the space to make gains against the extremists.

Administration officials said Obama sees congressional authorization for a Syrian train-and-equip message as sending a strong signal to allies who are considering similar efforts. During his Middle East trip, Kerry traveled to Saudi Arabia and Jordan for discussions in addition to his stop in Iraq, which this week formed a new government after last month’s resignation of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Speaking in Baghdad, Kerry said the international community will not sit and watch the Islamic State grow and identified Iraq as a key partner in the fight against the group.

"We all have an interest in supporting the new government of Iraq at this particular critical junction," he said Wednesday.

He said an international coalition to confront the Islamic State will continue to grow in the days ahead. "That is because the United States and the world will simply not stand by to watch as ISIL's evil spreads," he said, using an alternative acronym for the Islamic State.

Underscoring the sectarian violence that has dogged Iraq in recent years, a double car bomb attack near markets in Baghdad killed 13 people on Wednesday. 

On Capitol Hill, there was little consensus on the scope of Obama's authority to broaden the campaign against Islamic State extremists. While some lawmakers said the president has the power he needs under the Constitution, others were seeking a more central congressional role in the effort.

"I think it is to his advantage and the country's advantage to have Congress buy into that," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said before joining other Republican and Democratic leaders in the Oval Office for the meeting with Obama.

None of them spoke to reporters as they left the White House.

However, an aide to House Speaker John Boehner said the Ohio Republican expressed support for efforts to increase the effectiveness of the Iraqi security forces and for equipping the Syrian opposition. Boehner also said he would support the deployment of U.S. military personnel to Iraq in a training and advisory role and to "assist with lethal targeting" of Islamic State leadership, according to the aide, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the private meeting.

The U.S. is already launching airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq, a mission undertaken at the invitation of the Iraqi government and without authorization from Congress. But the scope of the mission has been relatively limited to strikes that help protect U.S. interests in the region and prevent humanitarian crises.

U.S. officials said Obama was expected to loosen those limitations and open a broader counterterrorism campaign in Iraq. After the Islamic State's shocking beheading of two American journalists in Syria, Obama began more seriously considering extending strikes into that country.

Obama's spokesman has said the president is willing "to go wherever is necessary to strike those who are threatening Americans." However, Obama has continued to rule out sending U.S. troops into ground combat operations in the Middle East.

In a shift for a war-weary nation, new polls suggest the American people would support a sustained air campaign. 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.

Obama would still have to contend with the notion that U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State militants would help Assad in Syria's bloody civil war. The U.S. has long called for Assad to leave power, and the Islamic State is one of the groups in Syria seeking to oust him.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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