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Officials: US 'at War' With Islamic State Militants


Turkey's Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlut Cavusoglu, right, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speak to the media before a meeting in Ankara, Sept. 12, 2014.
Turkey's Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlut Cavusoglu, right, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speak to the media before a meeting in Ankara, Sept. 12, 2014.

United States officials declared on Friday that the country "is at war with ISIL, in the same way that we are at war with al-Qaida and its al-Qaida affiliates all across the globe."

President Barack Obama has more than once described the Islamic State group as a cancer. He has said it needs to be degraded and defeated, and has ordered U.S. warplanes to bomb it.

The president said Friday the goal of a growing US-lead coalition of Arab and Western states is to "snuff out this particular brand of Islamic extremism" cultivated by the Islamic State.

The militants have launched an armed campaign of fighting, kidnappings, and killings as they extended their reach from Syria into Iraq.

Top U.S. officials, however, have been cautious to avoid saying the United States is at war with the group. That changed on Friday, when White House spokesman Josh Earnest characterized the president's efforts against the militant group also known as ISIL.

“In the same way that we are at war with al-Qaida and its affiliates around the globe, we are at war with ISIL,” said Earnest.

Three-letter word

Other statements came from spokepersons for the Pentagon and the State Department, marking the first time that top American officials used the word war to describe the U.S.-led offensive against the militants.

In a televised speech on Wednesday, President Barack Obama said the United States would fight the Islamic extremists with a coalition, but would not put soldiers on the ground. He refrained, however, from using the term "war" to describe a four-pronged strategy based on airstrikes, counter-intelligence, humanitarian aid, and support for forces in Syria and Iraq currently fighting the militants.

Obama was elected, in part, on his promises to end the U.S.-led war in Iraq - where he opposed U.S. involvement to begin with.

Now, with a new strategy that includes augmenting the number of U.S. military advisers in Iraq, administration officials offering assurances that what is happening is not the start of another U.S. war in the region.

Earnest indicated the expanded effort against the Islamic State group is not a repeat of the 8-year U.S. invasion of Iraq.

“It is important for people here in the United States and around the world to understand that the strategy that the United States is pursuing at the direct order of the President of the United States is different from the strategy that was previously pursued in Iraq,” said Earnest.

Humanitarian aid

Also Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry announced nearly $500 million in additional U.S. aid for those affected by Syria's civil war.

The new funding is designated for civilians displaced inside Syria and the more than three million Syrian refugees in Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt. More than half of Syria's population has been displaced by conflict.

This largest single U.S. humanitarian contribution will go through the United Nations appeal for Syria. It brings the total of U.S. humanitarian assistance to more than $2.9 billion since fighting started in 2011.

The new funds is part of the Obama administration's broader push to rally neighboring states to fight Islamic State militants.

Kerry in Turkey

Turkey is central to the effort to stop Islamic State's funding and oil smuggling and to restrict the flow of foreign fighters.

Kerry, who is currently in Turkey, gives him another chance to meet with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who joined him in Saudi Arabia Thursday for talks with Arab leaders who have agreed to join the coalition.

But Turkey declined to sign a joint communique in Jeddah about sharing in a comprehensive fight to repudiate the group's "hateful ideology," and, as appropriate, to join "in the many aspects of a coordinated military campaign."

Turkey has a long border with Syria, through which many of the Islamic State's most recent recruits are thought to have passed. At the meeting in Jeddah, Turkish officials said they have denied entry to more than 6,000 potential recruits and have deported 1,000 others.

In an interview with VOA, Kerry said it is a challenge Turkey is taking seriously.

"Many foreign fighters have moved through Turkey. So there is a lot to discuss with Turkey … but obviously they have some immediate sensitivities and we are thoughtful about those,” Kerry said. “So we're going to sit down and talk about the road ahead."

Those sensitivities include Turkish hostages held by the IS militants in Syria and the role of ethnic Kurds in the fight. Kerry said that in a coalition of as many as 40 countries, each will contribute in their own way.

Coalition against the Islamic State, Sept. 12, 2014
Coalition against the Islamic State, Sept. 12, 2014

"Some countries have to tighten up the flow of money, others have to tighten up the flow of weapons, others have to tighten up the flow of foreign fighters,” he said. “There are all kinds of concerted efforts that are going to have to be focused on in order to make this work."

Sec. State John Kerry trip, Sept. 9-12 (Click to enlarge)
Sec. State John Kerry trip, Sept. 9-12 (Click to enlarge)

After Turkey, Kerry travels to Egypt for talks with the new government there on fighting the Islamic State and backing the cease-fire in Gaza.

Meanwhile, Obama has chosen General John Allen to coordinate the war effort against the militants. The general is a retired Marine who played a pivotal role in the Iraqi Sunni uprising against al-Qaida in 2007, and later served as America's top military commander in Afghanistan.

In August, General Allen told ABC News that the fight would require a broad-scope approach that went beyond pin-point air strikes.

"It's going to require a comprehensive approach to strike ISIS throughout the entire network of its organization, and some of that is Iraq, but a lot of that, particularly the support area, is inside Syria."

U.S. intelligence authorities say the Islamic State is more powerful than they originally estimated. The Central Intelligence Agency says the group has between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters on the ground in Iraq and Syria. This is much higher than the previous estimate of 10,000.

VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez provided information for this report from the White House.