We will hunt down terrorists, vows Obama as he announces expanded Iraq air strikes

US President Barack Obama delivers a primetime address from the Cross Hall of the White House on Sept 10, 2014, in Washington, DC. -- PHOTO: AFP
US President Barack Obama delivers a primetime address from the Cross Hall of the White House on Sept 10, 2014, in Washington, DC. -- PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - US President Barack Obama announced expanded air strikes in Iraq, part of a broader strategy to combat Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria.

He also offered the first hint that he would be willing to launch similar strikes in Syria, even as he stressed Washington's continued opposition to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

"I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are. That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq,'' he said, referring to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, also known as the Islamic State (IS).

"This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven," he said in a highly anticipated televised prime time address on Wednesday.

The US president also made clear that the effort to "degrade and destroy" the Islamic militants would be a long-term exercise but stressed that the operation would be starkly different from the wars they fought in the Middle East.

"I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil,'' he said.

"This counter-terrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground. This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years," he added.

The president and his senior administration officials had also stressed throughout Wednesday in the US capital that the fight would not be a unilateral effort.

"This is not our fight alone," Mr Obama said from the White House. "American power can make a decisive difference, but we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves, nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region. That's why I've insisted that additional US action depended upon Iraqis forming an inclusive government, which they have now done in recent days.

" So tonight, with a new Iraqi government in place, and following consultations with allies abroad and Congress at home, I can announce that America will lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat."

The diplomatic effort will be headed by Secretary of State John Kerry who is travelling across the Middle East and Europe this week to secure allies. The US department of Homeland Security will also work to track foreign fighters who come from, or try to enter, the United States, while the US Treasury will seek ways to disrupt the militants' sources of funding.

During a call between Mr Obama and King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia earlier on Wednesday, both leaders agreed on the need for increased training and equipping of the moderate Syrian opposition.

jeremyau@sph.com.sg