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Obama says anti-Islamic State strategy unchanged even as airstrikes increase

President Obama acknowledged Monday that the Islamic State terrorists have been “particularly effective” at recruiting volunteers to fight in Iraq and Syria but pledged to stay on track with his current strategy even though it “will not be quick” in bringing about the group’s defeat.

Speaking at the Pentagon with his top military commanders at his side, Obama lauded the success of the 5,000 airstrikes against Islamic State positions and the efforts to cut off funding for the militant group. But he insisted that Iraqi forces must ultimately be responsible for defeating the extremists with U.S. advice and assistance – but not combat troops.

“This is a long-term campaign. ISIL is opportunistic, and it is nimble,” he said, using an acronym for Islamic State. “In many places in Syria and Iraq, including urban areas, it's dug in among innocent civilian populations. It will take time to root them out.”

“Doing so must be the job of local forces on the ground, with training and air support from our coalition,” Obama insisted.

His remarks came after a meeting with top brass at the Pentagon as the U.S. tries to help Iraqi security forces reverse the gains the militant group has made in recent months.

The president’s rare visit to the Pentagon highlights the concern within the administration about Islamic State’s assault on Iraq and Syria and about Iraqi forces’ faltering attempts to drive them back.

Over the last weekend, the U.S. stepped up the airstrikes against the terrorist group, launching dozens against Islamic State positions in Syria and Iraq. The flurry of activity coincided with calls from the group for followers to design and carry out their own attacks around the world. The extremists also claimed responsibility for recent attacks on a Tunisian hotel and Kuwaiti mosque.

Concerned about the ability of Iraqi security forces to fight the extremists, Obama announced this summer that he would send 450 additional troops to help train and assist local fighters in the capital of Anbar province, where Islamic State militants have dealt embarrassing blows to the Iraqi central government. In addition, the U.S. is working to cut off Islamic State's drive for funding for its campaign of violence.

Critics of the administration say that the Obama strategy isn’t working and that it’s time for the president and his team to rethink it.

“ISIL is not 10 feet tall," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in a statement. "It can be, and must be, defeated. But that will never happen if we continue to delude ourselves about our current campaign.”

McCain noted that Islamic State continues to gain territory and warned that no "responsible ground force" exists in Iraq or Syria to take and hold ground from the extremists. 

But senior administration officials said Monday that the president is committed to his current strategy and that he was not going to the Pentagon to discuss possible changes in it.

“There is no situation on the ground that has prompted this,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Monday. The White House is “mindful” of the many risks in Iraq and Syria, Earnest said, adding that “the fact is, our national security professionals are always vigilant.”

As Obama prepared to visit the Pentagon on Monday, the White House complained publicly that Senate Republicans are dragging their feet in confirming his nominee to target terrorist funding in a sanctions drive at the Treasury Department.

In his daily briefing, Earnest called for the quick confirmation of of his pick, Adam Szubin, so that he begin efforts to cut off funding for Islamic State and its allies.

Obama described Szubin’s post as “a vital position to our counter-terrorism efforts,” adding that, if Congress wants to help, lawmakers will confirm him immediately.

As he spoke, Obama was joined onstage by commanders involved in the ISIL discussion, including Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, head of U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East.

The air war and the train-and-assist missions have been effective, Obama said.

“We have taken out thousands of fighting positions, tanks, vehicles, bomb factories and training camps. We've eliminated thousands of fighters, including senior ISIL commanders,” Obama said. “And over the past year we've seen that, when we have an effective partner on the ground, ISIL can be pushed back,” he added, ticking off Islamic State defeats across Iraq.

Obama, who was flanked by decorated generals, said it would take more than just military might to win the fight against Islamic State.

“There's a cause, a coalition that's united countries across the globe, some 60 nations including Arab partners,” Obama said. “Our comprehensive strategy against ISIL is harnessing all elements of American power across our government -- military, intelligence, diplomatic, economic development and, perhaps most importantly, the power of our values.”

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