President Barack Obama on Saturday repeated his promise not to use additional U.S. ground troops in his assault against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, even as war hawks made clear they didn't want to rule out the possibility and Iraqis warned against such action.
"I won’t commit our troops to fighting another ground war in Iraq, or in Syria," Obama said in his weekly address, during which he also thanked Congress for authorizing his plan to arm and train Syrian militants in opposition to ISIS. "It’s more effective to use our capabilities to help partners on the ground secure their own country’s futures."
However, Obama added: "When the world is threatened; when the world needs help; it calls on America. And we call on our troops. Whether it’s to degrade and ultimately destroy a group of terrorists, or to contain and combat a threat like the Ebola epidemic in Africa; we ask a lot of our troops."
As Trevor Timm writes at the Guardian, "in less than a week, the administration’s position has gone from 'absolutely no ground troops, period' to 'well, actually….'"
Multiple military officials have suggested that airstrikes may not be enough to defeat the militant group, which despite recent bombings by U.S. and French forces, continues to seize territory in Iraq and Syria. On Friday, the group's advances forced about 60,000 Syrian Kurds to flee into Turkey in the space of 24 hours.
Obama's military campaign against ISIS "already has extended beyond the limits he first outlined," Julie Pace writes for the Associated Press. "But military experts inside and outside the administration argue that an even greater expansion may be needed for the mission to succeed, including positioning U.S. ground troops with front-line Iraqi security forces."
White House officials have left open the possibility that Obama could accept a recommendation to put ground troops in forward operating positions alongside Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces. While officials say those troops would not be sent with a specific combat mission, they would be armed, as are the 1,600 military personnel that have been deployed to Iraq this summer. And if they come under attack, the forces have the authority to fight back.
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In the face of such an option, several thousand Iraqis attended a demonstration held on Saturday in Baghdad, called by the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr to warn against the possible deployment of American ground troops.
The New York Times reports that "Mr. Sadr publicly blamed the CIA for creating the Islamic State in a speech last week, and interviews suggested that most of the few thousand people at the demonstration, including dozens of members of Iraq's Parliament, subscribed to the same theory."
According to the Times:
The demonstration on Saturday was the latest in a series of signals from Shiite leaders or militias—especially those considered close to Iran—warning the United States not to put its soldiers back on the ground. Mr. Obama has repeatedly pledged not to send combat troops, but he seems to have convinced few Iraqis. “We don’t trust him,” said Raad Hatem, 40.
Haidar al-Assadi, 40, agreed. “The Islamic State is a clear creation of the United States, and the United States is trying to intervene again using the excuse of the Islamic State,” he said.
Later on Saturday, Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi told the Associated Press "he is prepared to give whatever support is needed in the fight against [ISIS]." Secretary of State John Kerry said earlier this month that Egypt had a "critical role" to play in the campaign.
The AP reports:
El-Sissi did not elaborate on what support Egypt might give to the U.S.-led coalition aimed at fighting the extremist group. When asked if Egypt might provide airspace access or logistical support for airstrikes, he said, "We are completely committed to giving support. We will do whatever is required."
But he appeared to rule out sending troops, saying Iraq's military is strong enough to fight the militants and "it's not a matter of ground troops from abroad."