- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 27, 2015

As the Islamic State’s leader rallies his troops and boasts that the U.S.-led anti-terrorism effort ultimately will fail, key lawmakers on Sunday raised new questions about the Obama administration’s strategy to defeat the militant group, saying the plan so far has accomplished very little.

Speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” Rep. Peter T. King said that President Obama’s bombing campaign, which began about 16 months ago, has done virtually nothing to stop the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL. At the same time, Mr. King said, the terrorist group is expanding its reach and actively plotting to attack the U.S.

“After 15, 16 months of air attacks by the U.S., it has had minimal impact on ISIS, considering how long those attacks have been going on,” said Mr. King, chairman of the House subcommittee on counterterrorism and intelligence. “ISIS is stronger, I believe, than it was 16 months ago. … In the last several months, it’s become clear they do want to launch an attack on the U.S.”

The New York Republican’s words directly contradict the account of Mr. Obama, who stressed last week that his strategy is working and urged the American people to be patient.

But the Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, over the weekend also said the U.S. bombing campaign has had little effect, brushing off recent setbacks for the group.

The American effort has, for example, succeeded in recent months in clearing the Islamic State out of areas in Iraq and Syria that it had controlled. Those airstrikes also are aiding Iraqi troops in their ongoing quest to recapture the key city of Ramadi, and the attacks have taken out several of al-Baghdadi’s top deputies over the past several weeks.

Those developments, according to al-Baghdadi, have not blunted the group’s ambitions. In trying to inspire his troops, he cast the fight as a clash between the Muslim world and the rest of the planet.

“It is unprecedented in the history of our Ummah [Islamic nation] that all the world came against it in one battle, as it is happening today. It is the battle of all the disbelievers against all of the Muslims,” he said, adding that the American-led alliance does “not scare us … nor do they scatter our resolve because we are the victors in any event.”

Al-Baghdadi’s audio message — which has not been fully authenticated, though it was released through the Islamic State’s usual channels, suggesting it’s real — also threatened Israel and mocked the U.S. for its unwillingness to send ground troops to the Middle East to fight the organization.

Meanwhile, Islamic State forces are putting up a serious fight in Ramadi, according to Iraqi commanders on the ground.

Gen. Ismail al-Mahlawi, head of military operations in Iraq’s Anbar province, told The Associated Press over the weekend that his forces have been slowed by suicide bombers, snipers and booby traps.

Another Iraqi officer said the forces will “need days” to get to Ramadi’s central government complex, and that the Iraqi army has yet to gain full control of a single neighborhood in the city.

Amid that uncertainty, Mr. Obama has been forced to defend his strategy and fend off criticism from Republicans who say he’s failing to take seriously the threat posed by the Islamic State. Recent polling shows that a majority of the American people agree.

A CNN/ORC International poll released earlier this month shows that about 60 percent of Americans disapprove of Mr. Obama’s handling of terrorism.

About 60 percent also said U.S. military action against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is going poorly.

Still, the president has dismissed the strategies advanced by some GOP presidential contenders — such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who repeatedly has vowed to “carpet bomb” the Islamic State into oblivion if he is elected — and maintains that the American public merely must become better educated on the administration’s broader strategy.

“Now, on our side, I think that there is a legitimate criticism of what I’ve been doing and our administration has been doing in the sense that we haven’t, you know, on a regular basis, I think, described all the work that we’ve been doing for more than a year now to defeat ISIL,” Mr. Obama told NPR last week. “And so part of our goal here is to make sure that people are informed about all the actions we’re taking. … We are going after them hard. And we are confident that we are going to prevail.”

The president also stressed that the U.S.-led coalition has conducted about 9,000 strikes against the Islamic State over the past 16 months.

There were at least 17 such strikes on Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria on Christmas Day alone, according to the Pentagon.

While largely supportive of the president’s overall strategy to combat terror, even some Democratic presidential candidates have hinted that the U.S. must do more to build a coalition of Muslim nations that can wage war on the Islamic State on the ground.

Speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Vermont Sen. Bernard Sanders — Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton’s prime challenger — said that “American leadership” moving forward must center on assembling such a coalition.

“It’s what has got to happen,” Mr. Sanders said. “A) It cannot be the United States alone. B) What many people in the Middle East understand is it must be the Muslims themselves on the ground destroying ISIS. … What I think American leadership is about is putting together that international coalition to destroy ISIS.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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