President Barack Obama vowed on Wednesday the United States will not fight another ground war in Iraq, seeking to reassure Americans about the level of U.S. involvement after a top general suggested some combat troops could be deployed.
Obama, who has spent much of his presidency distancing himself from the Iraq war, stressed during a speech at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa that airstrikes would be the central U.S. contribution to the fight against Islamic State, along with coordinating a coalition that he said now includes more than 40 countries.
"The American forces that have been deployed to Iraq do not and will not have a combat mission," Obama told American troops at the headquarters of U.S. Central Command in Florida.
Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives has voted to let the president arm and train vetted members of the Syrian opposition in the fight against the Islamic State militant group in Syria. Wednesday's vote was 273 to 156.
The vote came in response to a request by the president, but a number of Democratic and Republican lawmakers strongly opposed the measure and expressed doubt about the president’s strategy to defeat the violent extremists.
More than 90 House members came to the floor during six hours of spirited debate over two days on whether to comply with the president’s request to give the U.S. military authority to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels as part of a larger coalition effort to destroy Islamic State fighters.
Democratic and Republican leaders supported the amendment, put forward by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon. There was a lot of opposition from rank-and-file members of both parties, however, as Republican Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy made clear:
“I know that many of us in this chamber from both sides of the aisle believe that the president’s strategy should do more to eradicate those extremists from the earth. But despite those reservations, reservations that I share, we must support this amendment and take this first step,” he said.
McCarthy called on Obama to stop trying to end the war on terrorism, and to start trying to win the war on terrorism. Some Republicans said they could not vote for the measure because the president is not doing enough to confront the serious national security threat posed by the Islamic State.
The measure authorizes the Pentagon to allocate existing funds to arm and train appropriately vetted rebels. Democratic Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez said there is too much that the U.S. does not know about Syrian rebels, including which ones are moderate.
“We don’t know, if somewhere down the line, they will turn our guns right back on us. In fact, [audible sigh] that is one of the scariest things that we have to face,” she said.
Under the amendment, the administration will have to keep Congress informed about how it intends to implement the training and equipment program for Syrian opposition groups.
The Senate, controlled by the Democrats, is expected to vote Thursday on a government spending bill and a measure to authorize the training of Syrian rebels. Analysts say senators are eager to pass both measures, so lawmakers can return to their home districts to campaign for the November elections.
Kerry: this is not 1991 or 2003
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also said American troops in Iraq do not and will not have a combat mission in the fight against Islamic State militants.
Kerry told a Senate committee Wednesday this is not 1991 or 2003, when U.S. forces were sent to Kuwait and Iraq to fight. He said their mission is training and supporting Iraqi forces on the ground, enabling the Iraqis to do what they must do.
Watch related video by VOA's Michael Bowman:
Kerry also said it is critical for Congress to approve funds to arm and train the moderate opposition in Syria.
He was briefly interrupted by members of an anti-war group, Code Pink, whose members are primarily women. He said he welcomes dissent, but reminded the protesters that Islamic State is killing, raping, mutilating and selling women.
Kerry said there is nothing to negotiate with Islamic State, calling its members cold blooded killers from the stone age making a mockery of a peaceful religion.
Some Republicans say the Obama administration still has not clearly spelled out its strategy for combating Islamic State, and that there is no clear exit strategy.
Kerry disputed that, saying the strategy is clear. He said it has been well thought out and articulated. He said about 50 countries already are doing something in Iraq while other foreign leaders are asking how they can help.
The United States already has launched more than 150 airstrikes against Islamic State target in Iraq. Kerry said these strikes have been extremely effective in helping Iraqi forces push back the militants.
Messages from the president and secretary of state came a day after General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, left the door slightly ajar to the possibility of some ground forces during congressional testimony that worried some Democrats.
Obama said U.S. troops "will support Iraqi forces on the ground as they fight for their own country against these terrorists. ... (But) as your commander in chief I will not commit you and the rest of our armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq."
Obama added, "We cannot do for the Iraiqs what they must do for themselves."
The president spoke to troops from the four major armed services at MacDill, home to U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for U.S. security interests in 20 nations that stretch from the Arabian Gulf region into Central Asia.
For his effort to "destroy and degrade" the Islamic State forces, Obama said American troops will need to lead the international coalition, with local forces handling a significant role.
"Our armed forces are unparalleled and unique. So when we've got a big problem somewhere around the world, it falls on our shoulders. Sometimes that's tough. But that's what sets us apart. That's why we're American," he told the service members to a loud round of cheers.
In Iraq, however, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi strongly rejected the idea of the U.S. or other nations sending ground forces to his country to help fight the Islamic State group, saying Wednesday that foreign troops are "out of the question."
Al-Abadi told The Associated Press that the U.S. aerial campaign currently targeting the militants who have overrun much of northern and western Iraq has helped efforts to roll back the Sunni extremists. He also urged the international community to go after the group in neighboring Syria, saying the battle will prove endless unless the militants are wiped out there as well.
Support from the coalition members will vary.
Obama said France and Britain were already flying with the United States over Iraq; Australia and Canada would send military advisers to the country.
He also noted Saudi Arabia's willingness to base a U.S. mission to train moderate Syrian rebels on its soil and said German paratroopers were also going to take part in a training mission, which he did not specify.
"We will train and equip our partners. We will advise them and we will assist them. We will lead a broad coalition of countries who have a stake in this fight," said Obama.
Obama's strategy session with military officials at CentCom, as the headquarters is known, came as Iraqi troops, supported by three more U.S. airstrikes, battled Islamic State insurgents south of Baghdad in an area known as the "triangle of death."
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel also participated in the briefing, a day after he told a congressional panel that the effort is "complicated" and will take time.
Obama pulled out the last U.S. ground forces from Iraq in 2011 after a nine-year war that toppled longtime Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Dempsey told the same congressional hearing that more than 1,600 U.S. advisers in Iraq are acting "very much in a combat advisory role" and said there is currently "no intention" for them to engage in combat.
The United States has carried out more than 160 airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Iraq.
VOA's Cindy Saine contributed to this report from Capitol Hill, and some material also came from Reuters and AP.