- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 17, 2014

Lawmakers from both parties are increasingly questioning the Obama administration’s strategy for dealing with a powerful Islamist terrorist group in the Middle East, saying the U.S. should expand its approach, which might include combat troops on the ground in Iraq and airstrikes in Syria.

Since authorizing strikes against the Islamic State group two weeks ago, President Obama has gone to great lengths to assure the American people that no U.S. ground forces will return to war in Iraq. White House officials also have stressed that, although the militants pose a threat to American personnel and interests in the Middle East, the U.S. is not declaring a broad-based war against the group, which now controls swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria.

Islamic State fighters took control of the Mosul Dam, the largest dam in Iraq and one that is critical to water supplies in Baghdad, the capital. U.S. forces over the weekend continued airstrikes against Islamic State positions, including targets around the dam. Kurdish peshmerga forces allied with Washington reportedly wrested back control of at least part of the giant complex from militant control in a counterattack that continued Sunday.

Congressional Republicans and Democrats now say the Obama administration should rethink its carefully limited strategy of airstrikes and logistical support for Iraqi forces.

Some lawmakers are calling for a George W. Bush-style “coalition of the willing” of international partners to launch a broader attack against the Islamic State, whose rapid advances in recent months have stunned Westerners.

Others say U.S. ground troops in Iraq may become necessary, as could airstrikes against Islamic State fighters in neighboring Syria, where the group continues to clash with the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“We need to do everything we can to repel [the Islamic State],” Rep. Eliot L. Engel of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said during an appearance on “Fox News Sunday.”

“I don’t think we have the luxury of putting our heads in the sand and saying, ‘Well, it’s over there and we’re not going to do it,’” Mr. Engel said. “I think what we’re doing now is effective. We’ve got to do more of it. And ultimately, we may have some boots on the ground there. It’s not something I want. But you know what? We have bad choices, and the worst choice is to do nothing.”

Blood and bravado

The brutality and savagery of the Islamic State is becoming clear. Over the weekend, the group — which has slaughtered Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq while vowing to raise the “flag of Allah” at the White House — executed dozens of Iraqi men before abducting their wives and children, The Associated Press reported.

The victims were Yazidis, members of a Kurdish religious minority in Iraq. A week ago, more than 40,000 Yazidis were trapped on a mountaintop in northern Iraq and surrounded by Islamic State forces.

Mr. Obama’s airstrikes were designed to dislodge Islamic State positions around the mountain and allow the Yazidis to escape, which most were able to do. The mission also included airdrops of food and water to the trapped Yazidis.

But even as U.S. forces continued striking Islamic State targets over the weekend, the administration hasn’t budged from its position of limited direct involvement. Defeating the Islamic State group, officials say, is the responsibility of the newly formed Iraqi government.

“When people talk about whether or not the United States is going to be drawn more into another war in Iraq on the ground, I think what they need to know is we’ve laid out what the objectives are for our military, which are protecting our people and carrying out the humanitarian mission,” Ben Rhodes, the White House’s deputy national security adviser, told reporters last week. “The broader effort to take the fight to [the Islamic State] on the ground is being carried out by Iraqi and Kurdish forces, with our training, our arming, our advice. But again, they’re the ones who are engaged in combat.”

Iraqi burden

The administration also has said new leadership in the Iraqi government is crucial to the fight against the Islamic State. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has agreed to step down amid strong pressure from the U.S. His successor, Haider al-Abadi, will soon take the reins of the war-torn country.

The Associated Press reported that the U.S. military conducted 14 airstrikes Sunday that damaged or destroyed 10 armed vehicles, seven Humvees, two armored personnel carriers and one checkpoint, according to a statement by the U.S. Central Command. On Saturday, it carried out nine airstrikes near the dam that destroyed four armored personnel carriers, seven armed vehicles, two Humvees and another armored vehicle, the command said.

It remains unclear whether the Iraqi military has the capacity to take on the Islamic State fighters, even with expanded U.S. backing. Lawmakers argue that the U.S. must play a much larger role in order to defeat the group.

“President Obama bugged out of Iraq, and that was a strategic and historic blunder, and we’re seeing the results of that. So right now what the president has to do is he has to assemble a coalition of the willing,” Sen. Ron Johnson, Wisconsin Republican, said during an interview on “Fox News Sunday.” “We have to realize this is a growing threat to America.”

A growing number of Democrats also charge that the White House is making a serious mistake by not declaring all-out war against the Islamic State group.

“We heard our nation’s leaders say after [Sept. 11, 2001] that we would go and take out these Islamic extremists, wherever they are, that we would fight against those who are waging war against the United States. That stated mission after 9/11 has been lost,” Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Hawaii Democrat, said during an interview Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” “If our mission is not to take out the Islamic extremists who continue to threaten and wage war against us, then I think we’ve got a real problem here.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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