President Obama said Monday that the U.S.-led coalition was hitting Islamic State “harder than ever” in Iraq and Syria, ticking off successes on the battlefield even as Americans are increasingly concerned about the threat of terrorism at home.
Speaking at the Pentagon after a briefing from his national security team, Obama noted that Islamic State had not waged a “single successful major offensive operation” since 2014 in either of the countries where it holds territory, losing up to 40% of its footprint in Iraq and thousands of square miles in Syria.
In November, the U.S. dropped more bombs on Islamic State targets than in any other month, while U.S. forces working with local partners have taken out senior leaders of the extremist group, also called ISIL or ISIS.
“ISIL leaders cannot hide, and our next message to them is simple: you are next,” Obama said.
The update was another effort by Obama to stress his long-term and limited strategy against Islamic State amid calls to send more ground troops to defeat the group. Since the San Bernardino attack, Obama has been under pressure to convince Americans that he is doing everything he can to keep them safe.
“More people are seeing ISIL for the thugs and the thieves and the killers that they are,” he said.
But the president acknowledged that progress needs to come faster, and said diplomatic efforts are just as critical in seeking to end the 5-year-old civil war in Syria that has complicated the fight there.
“This continues to be a difficult fight,” he said, saying Islamic State forces are “dug in” in urban areas and using civilians as human shields. “So even as we’re relentless we have to be smart, targeting ISIL surgically, with precision.”
The intent of Obama’s visit to the Pentagon was to get an update on the initiatives discussed during a National Security Council meeting in July. At that meeting, the White House told Pentagon officials to look for ways to step up the campaign against Islamic State militants.
Since then, the U.S. military role has steadily grown in both Iraq and Syria, as the president explained in greater detail than he did in his Oval Office address to the nation a week earlier.
The Pentagon said last month it would deploy about 100 more special operations troops to Iraq as a “specialized expeditionary targeting force” to conduct raids, free hostages, gather intelligence and capture Islamic State leaders in Iraq.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told Congress last week that U.S. troops stand ready to advise the Iraqi army and provide Apache attack helicopters to help retake the strategic city of Ramadi from Islamic State militants if the Iraqi government requests it.
Ramadi has been in the militants’ hands since May. The army has been unable to break through hundreds of booby traps and other defenses built by a small force of Islamic State fighters holed up in the city, about 60 miles west of Baghdad.
Iraqi security forces have been leading a major ground assault underway for weeks now and have had success in recent days, gradually recapturing government and military buildings from the Islamic State.
Carter left Monday for a trip to Turkey, where American fighter jets and drones take off daily from the Incirlik air base on bombing runs against Islamic State, and to the Middle East. It marks Carter’s third trip to that region since taking over as Defense secretary in February.
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