President Barack Obama, who will set out a broad long-term strategy to defeat the Islamic State in a speech to Americans on Wednesday evening, is prepared to authorize air strikes against the group in Syria, U.S. officials said, Reuters reported.
Pursuing the Islamist radicals inside Syria would complement an expanded military campaign to back government forces in Iraq following the formation of a more inclusive government in Baghdad.
Obama has promised not to send combat troops back to the region, but he is expected to announce a commitment to provide more arms and training to rebel groups in Syria, a key element in any campaign of air attacks there.
The groups were formed with U.S. encouragement to try to oust President Bashar al-Assad, but Washington did not provide them with the weapons they needed and they have been eclipsed by Islamist and al Qaeda-associated movements.
After more than 150 U.S. air strikes in Iraq in the last month, Iraqi and Kurdish forces have halted the Islamic State advance. Obama has signaled for days that he is willing to expand the mission to Syria, headquarters of the organization responsible for beheading two American journalists.
That is a significant shift for a president who has been reluctant to increase the U.S. military footprint in the region and three years ago pulled out the last combat troops from Iraq.
The president is scheduled to speak at 9 p.m. EDT (0100 GMT Thursday), an evening time slot that raises the profile and the stakes for his speech, which is one day before the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon.
DEGRADE AND DESTROY
"Tonight you will hear ... how the United States will pursue a comprehensive strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL, including U.S. military action and support for the forces combating ISIL on the ground," a White House official said, using an acronym for the Islamic State.
"The president will discuss how we are building a coalition of allies and partners in the region and in the broader international community to support our efforts."
With the speech, Obama is trying to build on the support that has grown among the American public for military action, partly fueled by anger over the beheading of the journalists, and also appeal to likely international partners.
Obama spoke to Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah earlier on Wednesday as part of that effort and Secretary of State John Kerry, now visiting Baghdad, will be meeting with leaders across the region in the coming days.
The president told congressional leaders on Tuesday he does not need additional authorization to carry out his plan but the White House is eager to have their support along with that of the international community.
The Islamic State has taken over huge swathes of land in Iraq and Syria. Although U.S. officials say there is no imminent threat of attack against the United States, there are strong concerns that individuals from the West who went to fight with the group may return to their homelands and wreak havoc.
Obama is expected to say that he is prepared to authorize air strikes in Syria, according to a number of U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity in advance of the speech. He said earlier the United States would seek out IS militants wherever they could be hit.
MAKING HIS CASE
Obama came close to direct military action a year ago in Syria to support what Washington considers more moderate rebel forces fighting Assad, but he held off because of strong opposition in Congress.
Polls this week show the majority of Americans support action against the militants.
More than 70 percent of Americans support air strikes in Iraq and 65 percent support using them in Syria, a Washington Post-ABC News opinion poll found. An NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll showed 61 percent said military action against the group was in the interests of the United States.
Obama showed a willingness to intrude militarily into Syrian space with an unsuccessful operation in July to try to rescue Americans held hostage by the Islamic State, and he said in an interview that aired on Sunday that Washington was prepared to hit the group's leaders wherever it could.
Iraq's formation of a relatively inclusive government on Monday cleared the way for wider U.S. action in support of Iraqi armed forces and Kurdish forces in a country where the United States was engaged in a bitter military struggle for nine years after overthrowing President Saddam Hussein.
Still, Obama, who was elected in 2008 on a promise to get U.S. troops out of Iraq, is seeking to solidify domestic support.
U.S. lawmakers have been mixed on whether Congress must authorize any wider U.S. military action in the region.
Representative Mike Rogers, the Republican head of the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN Obama's speech was "a good start" to combating a serious threat and said the president needed to leave room for other possible action, such as sending in special U.S. forces.