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Obama applauds Iraqi leader’s unity goals as key to beating militants

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi, center, attends a parliament session in Baghdad on Monday.
(Hadi Mizban / Pool Photo)

President Obama welcomed the formation of a new Iraqi government on Monday, embracing the promise of collaboration among the country’s deeply divided factions as key to his strategy for defeating the Islamic State terrorist group.

Obama talked to newly installed Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi to applaud his efforts to form a broad-based government and to encourage its cooperation with other countries that have pledged to help Iraq fight the militants, according to a White House account of the phone call.

“The president underscored his commitment to coordinating closely with Prime Minister Abadi and his government as we advance our strategy to combat ISIL,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said, using an alternate name for the Islamic State group.

The new Iraqi government, though short of some key posts and subject to the infighting that doomed its predecessors, was seen as integral to the plan Obama has outlined to take on the militants.

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Their swift takeover of large swaths of Iraq pressured the president into a bombing campaign to protect U.S. personnel there and attack the group’s positions. The pressure to achieve measurable progress gained new urgency when videos surfaced in recent weeks of the extremists beheading two American journalists and other captives.

Along with continuing and perhaps expanding airstrikes, Obama has also emphasized the importance of partnerships with other nations in the region as part of his strategy against the organization. He has also called for training and equipping the Iraqi military as well as Kurdish and Sunni Arab forces, and deploying them collaboratively under the new Abadi government.

Obama is working this week to build support at home for his plan, starting with a meeting with congressional leaders from both parties at the White House on Tuesday. He will then address the nation Wednesday, the eve of the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. He is expected to more fully lay out his strategy, including his criteria for considering strikes against Islamic State in its strongholds in neighboring Syria.

The tentative nature of Obama’s strategy, which senior administration officials described as still evolving, highlights the complexities the president faces. In broadening the U.S.-led campaign against the Sunni extremists, he must consider an American public wary of engagement overseas, a skeptical Congress, the lack of imminent threat to the United States as well as regional instability and competing interests among prospective partners in the Middle East.

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“Obama needs to explain and justify, and show that he is actively leading with a coherent approach,” said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “He has to prepare the country for the idea that no one is going to eliminate the problem of Islamic extremism in this presidency or probably the next.”

The administration has already begun to put its plan into effect. In addition to publicly congratulating the newly formed Iraqi government, Obama is sending top envoys, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John F. Kerry, to shore up allies in the Middle East for a prolonged and bitter fight.

“Our global coordinated campaign, with a global coordinated coalition, will be built not just in a matter of days or weeks but will be built to endure for the months and perhaps even the years to come,” said Kerry, who is scheduled to head to the Mideast on Tuesday. “What we’re working to accomplish will require hard work, sustained commitment and unwavering focus from all of us.”

The regional hopscotching among top administration officials came as the U.S. expanded its air campaign against Islamic State over the weekend to the strategic Haditha dam in western Iraq, about 100 miles from the Syrian border.

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The U.S. moved in when the military saw that Islamic State built up artillery and equipment in the region, Pentagon officials said. It marked the first time that warplanes carried out strikes in anticipation of the militants’ advance, rather than targeting positions from which Islamic State fighters could carry out attacks on U.S. personnel or facilities.

The tactic could be a sign of things to come, but the understanding on Capitol Hill is that the administration will probably not launch a military offensive that would require new congressional authorization.

While eager to debate the White House’s strategy, most lawmakers are loath to put their names to such a vote, especially weeks before midterm elections that will determine which party controls Congress.

“There really is no appetite for a vote,” added one senior congressional aide, who was not authorized to discuss the deliberations and spoke on condition of anonymity.

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But some Republican defense hawks want to see bolder action in Syria, as do some Democrats, including Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, the home state of Steven Joel Sotloff, one of the Americans executed by Islamic State.

“We’re going to have to deal with them,” Nelson said Monday, “not only in Iraq, where we are now, but elsewhere.”

Still, a protracted battle isn’t what most Americans say they want, so going to Congress presents a dilemma for Obama, said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

“What if he comes over here and you can’t pass it?” said Graham. “That’d be a disaster. And what if you put so many conditions on it that it makes any military operation ineffective? That’s what I worry about.”

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But before the U.S. would commit to a more dramatic military campaign, Obama appears to be looking for commitments from regional leaders to take more responsibility for their own security. And despite his public support for the coalition government in Iraq, it isn’t yet clear that it will take hold or be effective.

Administration officials quietly acknowledged that the government led by Abadi, a Shiite Muslim, might not be settled to the satisfaction of the Kurds and Sunni Arabs. Abadi still needs to choose the ministers of defense and the interior, important security posts that all three of Iraq’s dominant groups would like to fill. Shiite hard-liners are pressing for one of their own as interior minister.

The uncertainty leaves room for the possibility that the groups will fail to rally around the new government.

Many experts, including former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, predict that resolving the differences could take months, a repeat of the endless talks that followed Iraq’s 2010 presidential election.

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Times staff writers Christi Parsons and Michael A. Memoli contributed to this report.


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