Wary lawmakers ready to OK arms for Syrian rebels

2014-09-17 21:09
Kurdish Peshmerga fighters stand guard as smoke rises after airstrikes targeting militants of the Islamic State group near the Khazer checkpoint. (Khalid Mohammed, AP)

Kurdish Peshmerga fighters stand guard as smoke rises after airstrikes targeting militants of the Islamic State group near the Khazer checkpoint. (Khalid Mohammed, AP)

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Washington - Wary House lawmakers prepared to give President Barack Obama authority to arm and train Syrian rebels in the fight against Islamic State militants on Wednesday as Iraq's new prime minister dismissed the notion that the struggle could lead to US forces again fighting on the ground in his country.

"Not only is it not necessary, we don't want them. We won't allow them," Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Congress appears inclined to give Obama the authority he wants - the first vote was likely in the House on Wednesday - but lawmakers are sharply divided over whether the US should be doing more or less.

Some Republicans contend that Islamic State militants occupying large portions of Iraq and Syria cannot be defeated without US ground troops backing up airstrikes in Iraq. Many Democrats oppose resuming a war in Iraq that the US exited three years ago.

The White House was quick to reject a suggestion by the top US military officer, Army General Martin Dempsey, that he might recommend US ground troops if Obama's current strategy doesn't work. Top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi repeated on Wednesday that she wouldn't support combat troops on the ground.

Obama's more-limited approach seemed headed for approval.

"If we want to open a front against [Islamic State forces] in Syria, we have to open a front. And I don't see any other way to do it than try to build an alternative force," said Representative Adam Smith, top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. "No one's excited about it but, you know, it's the best from a series of bad options."

Republican leaders have swung behind Obama's request, though they're not pressuring the party rank and file to follow suit.

"I think there's a lot more that we need to be doing, but there's no reason for us not to do what the president asked us to do," Speaker John Boehner said.

Pelosi also supports the limited mission, as does Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. The measure would send US military trainers to Saudi Arabia to arm and train Syrian opponents of Islamic State militants, who have routed US-trained Iraqi security forces repeatedly and threaten the viability of the government in Baghdad.

No ground mission

Obama has also vowed to use air power to strike Islamic State militants but has maintained repeatedly that American forces will not have a renewed ground combat mission in Iraq in this new phase of a long battle against terrorists.

However, in a Senate hearing on Tuesday, Dempsey said US ground troops may be needed to battle the Islamic State group.

Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee that if Obama's current approach isn't enough to prevail, he might "go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of ground forces".

That drew a polite but prompt rebuttal from the White House. Obama "will not deploy ground troops in a combat role into Iraq or Syria," spokesperson Josh Earnest said.

The White House position was endorsed on Wednesday by Iraqi Prime Minister al-Abadi, who rejected the idea of any foreign combat troops on Iraqi soil, despite the presence of US military advisers there now.

At the same time, the Islamic State group released a video warning the United States that its fighters are waiting in Iraq if Obama sends troops there.

The short video shows images of militants blowing up tanks and wounded US soldiers. It then shows a clip of Obama saying that combat troops will not be returning to Iraq, ending with a text overlay that reads "fighting has just begun".

The new congressional authority for Obama's plan would be added to a spending bill that's needed to keep the government running into December and avoid a politically damaging repeat of last year's partial shutdown of government agencies.

The underlying spending bill would also:

- Renew the charter of the Export-Import Bank, which helps finance foreign purchases of US exports, through next June. That postpones a battle between tea party forces opposing the bank and more establishment Republicans who support it.

- Provide $88m for the government's response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. A much larger, $560m request is pending that would send troops and detection teams, and build infrastructure such as a headquarters and new labs in Africa.

Read more on:    isis  |  iraq  |  us  |  syria

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