Obama weighs strategy against Islamic State

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Obama weighs strategy against Islamic State
WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 17: President Barack Obama and oldest daughter Malia return to the White House on August 17, 2014 in Washington, DC. The president is taking a break from his vacation in Martha's Vineyard to attend a series of meetings at the White House. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama and daughter Malia step soff Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on August 18, 2014 as he returns to Washington for two days. Obama will resume his vacation at Martha's Vineyard on August 19. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama goes biking with his wife Michelle (R) and daughter Malia at Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, on August 15, 2014 during their annual summer vacation on the island. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama goes biking with his daughter Malia at Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, on August 15, 2014 during their annual summer vacation on the island. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
EDGARTOWN, MA - AUGUST 14: U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks during a press briefing at the Edgartown School on August 14, 2014 in Edgartown, Massachusetts. The president, vacationing on the island, spoke about the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri and Iraq. (Photo by Rick Friedman-Pool/Getty Images)
Former NBA basketball player Alonzo Mourning, left, and President Barack Obama, right, ride in a golf cart while golfing at Farm Neck Golf Club, in Oak Bluffs, Mass., on the island of Martha's Vineyard, Sunday, Aug. 17, 2014. In a rare move for him, the president planned a break in the middle of his Martha's Vineyard vacation to return to Washington Sunday night for unspecified meetings with Vice President Joe Biden and other advisers. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Two people on a motor scooter, left, drive by as law enforcement officials from Secret Service and Massachusetts State Police stand outside State Road Restaurant where President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama have dinner with friends, Saturday, Aug. 16, 2014, in West Tisbury, Mass. President Obama is staying on Martha's Vineyard for what is expected to be a two-week summer vacation. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
President Barack Obama tees off while golfing at Vineyard Golf Club, in Edgartown, Mass., on the island of Martha's Vineyard, Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014. President Obama is taking a two-week summer vacation on the island. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
CHILMARK, MA - AUGUIST 11: President Barack Obama speaks briefly at a news conference on Iraq August 11, 2014 in Chilmark on Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. The president, vacationing on the island, called for the formation of a new government in Iraq and said the U.S. had successfully flown military sorties against Islamist extremists and had conducted humanitarian relief missions, according to published reports. (Photo by Rick Friedman-Pool/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama (hidden) and daughter Malia (L) make their way to board Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on August 9, 2014 as he departs for vacation at Martha's Vineyard, Massachussets. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama chats with former NFL player Ahmad Rashad as they play golf at Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, on August 9, 2014, on the first day of the president's yearly summer vacation on the island. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama arrives to make a statement on the situation in Iraq at Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, on August 11, 2014. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
CHILMARK, MA - AUGUIST 11: President Barack Obama speaks briefly at a news conference on Iraq August 11, 2014 in Chilmark on Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. The president, vacationing on the island, called for the formation of a new government in Iraq and said the U.S. had successfully flown military sorties against Islamist extremists and had conducted humanitarian relief missions, according to published reports. (Photo by Rick Friedman-Pool/Getty Images)
CHILMARK, MA - AUGUIST 11: President Barack Obama arrives to speak briefly at a news conference on Iraq August 11, 2014 in Chilmark on Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. The president, vacationing on the island, called for the formation of a new government in Iraq and said the U.S. had successfully flown military sorties against Islamist extremists and had conducted humanitarian relief missions, according to published reports. (Photo by Rick Friedman-Pool/Getty Images)
CHILMARK, MA - AUGUIST 11: President Barack Obama arrives to speak briefly at a news conference on Iraq August 11, 2014 in Chilmark on Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. The president, vacationing on the island, called for the formation of a new government in Iraq and said the U.S. had successfully flown military sorties against Islamist extremists and had conducted humanitarian relief missions, according to published reports. (Photo by Rick Friedman-Pool/Getty Images)
KIEV, UKRAINE - AUGUST 11 : Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is seen while talking on the phone with United States President Barack Obama in Kiev, Ukraine on August 11, 2014. United States President Barack Obama has discussed the planned aid missions to eastern Ukraine with the countrys President Petro Poroshenko. (Photo by Ukrainian Presidency / Mikhail Palinchak/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
MARTHA'S VINEYARD, MA - AUGUST 10: The Presidential motorcade heads back up island to Chilmark with Barack Obama after he played a round of golf at the Farm Neck Golf Club. (Photo by Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
MARTHA'S VINEYARD, MA - AUGUST 10: The Presidential motorcade makes its way across the island with President Barack Obama as it heads to Farm Neck Golf club. (Photo by Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
MARTHA'S VINEYARD, MA - AUGUST 10: A crowd at Farm Neck Golf Club try to get a view of the Presidential motorcade as it prepares to leave. President Obama played another round of golf on his second day of vacation. (Photo by Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
A Massachusetts State policeman stands guard as the motorcade of US President Barack Obama leaves their vacation residence at Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, on August 11, 2014 as the family departs for the beach on the third day of their yearly summer vacation. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
OAK BLUFFS, MA - AUGUST 09: President Barack Obama picks up a club while playing a round of golf with Ray Allen at the Farm Neck Golf Club on August 9, 2014 in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts. The Obama's are vacationing on the island for two weeks. (Photo by Matthew Healey-Pool/Getty Images)
OAK BLUFFS, MA - AUGUST 09: President Barack Obama lines up a putt on the first green at the Farm Neck Golf Club on August 9, 2014 in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts. The Obama's are vacationing on the island for two weeks. (Photo by Matthew Healey-Pool/Getty Images)
WEST TISBURY, MA - AUGUST 09: Members of the U.S. Secret Service walk out of Marine One after arriving at the Martha's Vineyard Airport on August 9, 2014 in West Tisbury, Massachusetts. The Obama's are vacationing on the island for two weeks. (Photo by Matthew Healey-Pool/Getty Images)
WEST TISBURY, MA - AUGUST 09: First Lady Michelle Obama walks out of Marine One after arriving at the Martha's Vineyard Airport on August 9, 2014 in West Tisbury, Massachusetts. The Obama's are vacationing on the island for two weeks. (Photo by Matthew Healey-Pool/Getty Images)
WEST TISBURY, MA - AUGUST 09: President Barack Obama and daughter Malia Obama, 16, walk out of Marine One after arriving at the Martha's Vineyard Airport on August 9, 2014 in West Tisbury, Massachusetts. The Obama's are vacationing on the island for two weeks. (Photo by Matthew Healey-Pool/Getty Images)
WEST TISBURY, MA - AUGUST 09: President Barack Obama and daughter Malia Obama, 16, walk out of Marine One after arriving at the Martha's Vineyard Airport on August 9, 2014 in West Tisbury, Massachusetts. The Obama's are vacationing on the island for two weeks. (Photo by Matthew Healey-Pool/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and daughter Malia arrive at Cape Cod Coast Guard Air Station in Massachusetts on August 9, 2014 before departing for their vacation at Martha's Vineyard. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama arrives at Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, on August 9, 2014 where they will spend their yearly summer vacation. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama delivers a statement before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on August 9, 2014 in Washington, DC. France and Britain have agreed to support US humanitarian efforts to help tens of thousands of civilians besieged by militants on a mountain in Iraq, President Obama said Saturday. 'Both leaders expressed strong support for actions and agreed to join us in providing humanitarian assistance to Iraqis suffering so much,' Obama told reporters at the White House after speaking by telephone with British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama delivers a statement before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on August 9, 2014 in Washington, DC. France and Britain have agreed to support US humanitarian efforts to help tens of thousands of civilians besieged by militants on a mountain in Iraq, President Obama said Saturday. 'Both leaders expressed strong support for actions and agreed to join us in providing humanitarian assistance to Iraqis suffering so much,' Obama told reporters at the White House after speaking by telephone with British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 09: U.S. President Barack Obama (C), first lady Michelle Obama (R) and their oldest daughter Malia Obama (L) walk out of the White House before boarding Marine One August 9, 2014 in Washington, DC. Obama delivered a statement about the ongoing U.S. military actions and humanitarian drops in northern Iraq before he and his family traveled to Martha's Vineyard for a two-week vacation. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 09: (L-R) First lady Michelle Obama, U.S. President Barack Obama and their oldest daughter Malia Obama walk across the South Lawn before boarding Marine One at the White House August 9, 2014 in Washington, DC. Obama delivered a statement about the ongoing U.S. military actions and humanitarian drops in northern Iraq before he and his family traveled to Martha's Vineyard for a two-week vacation. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
A sign welcoming the Obama family to Martha's Vineyard is seen from the press van en route to listen to President Barack Obama speak about developments in Iraq, Monday, Aug. 11, 2014, in Chilmark, Mass., during his family vacation on the island of Martha's Vineyard. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
President Barack Obama walks away from a podium after speaking about developments in Iraq, Monday, Aug. 11, 2014, from Chilmark, Mass., during his family vacation on the island of Martha's Vineyard. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Presidential dog Bo walks on the tarmac after deplaning Air Force One at Cape Cod Coast Guard Air Station in Bourne, Mass., Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014, en route to the island of Martha's Vineyard for a vacation with members of the first family. President Barack Obama starts a two-week summer vacation as the U.S. is engaged in airstrikes against Islamic militant targets in Iraq. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Air Force One, with President Barack Obama and the first family aboard, flies over the area of Cape Cod, Mass., Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014, en route to Martha's Vineyard fora two-week summer vacation, which comes as the U.S. is engaged in airstrikes against Islamic militant targets in Iraq. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
President Barack Obama walks with daughter Malia Obama, left, and first lady Michelle Obama, right, as they exit Air Force One at Cape Cod Coast Guard Air Station in Bourne, Mass., Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014, en route to family vacation on the island of Martha's Vineyard which comes as the U.S. is engaged in airstrikes against Islamic militant targets in Iraq. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Marine One carrying US President Barack Obama and daughter Malia prepares to take off from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on August 18, 2014 as he returns to Washington for two days. Obama will resume his vacation at Martha's Vineyard on August 19. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
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By KEN DILANIAN and LARA JAKES

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Obama administration is grappling with how to bridge the gap between its increasingly dire assessment of the threat posed by the Islamic State group and the limited, defensive air campaign it has so far undertaken, which military officials acknowledge will not blunt the group's momentum.

For months, administration officials have been divided about the threat posed by the Islamic State as it seized parts of Syria and advanced on towns in Iraq. Now, amid new intelligence about its growing strength, a consensus is forming that the group presents an unacceptable terrorism risk to the United States and its allies.

At issue is whether President Barack Obama, elected on a platform of ending the Iraq war, will heed calls for a campaign to contain or destroy the Islamic State, an undertaking that could dominate U.S. foreign policy for the remainder of his term.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the group poses "a threat to the civilized world," while Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., called the Islamic State a "terrorist army" that must be defeated. But Obama has not used similar language. He has authorized a limited campaign of targeted airstrikes designed to protect refugees and American personnel in the Kurdish region - but not take out the group's leadership or logistical hubs.

A strategy to destroy the Islamic State would not require large numbers of American ground troops, but it would amount to a significant escalation from the recent air operations, analysts say. It might also require military action in western Syria, where the group has its headquarters in the city of Ar-Raqqah.

Proponents of doing so argue that the Islamic State must be stopped because it will destabilize America's allies in the region and eventually export terror to Europe and the U.S. Critics of the idea are urging the president just as strongly not to get sucked into another Middle East war, arguing that years of American micromanagement in that region have ended in tears.

Obama himself has said the U.S. "has a strategic interest in pushing back" the Islamic State, but he has also insisted he will not send American combat troops back to war in Iraq. He has not shied away from using targeted military force in other places, such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, when he decided that terrorists there threatened the U.S.

U.S. officials say thousands of Westerners - and at least dozens of Americans - have sought to travel to Syria to join the fighting there, and some of them have joined the Islamic State. Attorney General Eric Holder has called the mix of Westerners and Syria-based terror groups "more frightening than anything I think I've seen as attorney general."

U.S. intelligence believes that some of those Westerners are now fighting in Iraq, said a senior intelligence official who was not authorized to discuss sensitive intelligence by name and requested anonymity.

When al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula seized parts of southern Yemen in 2011, Obama stepped up drone strikes and used special operations to support Yemeni forces in pushing the militants out.

Smashing the Islamic State, military and intelligence analysts say, would require a sustained campaign of American airstrikes, combined with a U.S.-backed ground force of Sunni tribesmen - the same approach that rooted al-Qaida in Iraq out of the Sunni tribal areas in 2008.

But such a campaign would be "orders of magnitudes more difficult" than Yemen because of how well-armed and well-trained Islamic State fighters are, said Peter Mansoor, a retired army colonel who helped oversee a turnaround in Iraq in 2008.

"We have a mismatch between our goals and our strategy at the present time," said Mansoor, now a professor at Ohio State. "The goal eventually is to eliminate (the Islamic State), but the president has laid out a very restrained military option which can't accomplish that goal."

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a security forum in Aspen, Colorado, last month that the military is "preparing a strategy that has a series of options to present to our elected leaders on how we can initially contain, eventually disrupt, and finally defeat (the Islamic State group) over time."

Obama's GOP critics fear that the president will shy away from such a strategy because it repudiates what they say was his misguided decision to disengage from Iraq. Two years ago, the president resisted the calls of his advisers to aggressively arm moderate rebels in Syria.

"You can almost hear the angst in the voices of our military commanders connected to what they know is a fundamental mismatch" between the threat and the strategy, said Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., a former Army officer and member of the House Intelligence Committee. "President Obama absolutely is refusing to acknowledge the threat to America and respond in a way that is appropriate."

Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser, rejected that view. "We absolutely believe that (the Islamic State) poses a threat to U.S. persons and personnel," he said Wednesday. "We're focused on dealing with that threat right now in Iraq so that the terrorists cannot advance on Irbil," the Iraqi Kurdish capital.

Administration officials say the White House has been deeply divided at least since the start of 2014 over how much the Islamic State threatens Americans.

In January, when the militants overran the western Iraqi city of Fallujah, U.S. officials weighed whether to intervene. But one senior U.S. official familiar with the conversations said there were concerns that what was playing out was an internal dispute - a revolution by Sunni tribes against the Shiite-led government and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. At a result, the U.S. limited its response to providing the Iraqi army with Hellfire missiles and began tracking the militants with surveillance drones.

Since then, the number of Islamic State militants swelled from a few thousand to an estimated 15,000 die-hard members, according to two senior intelligence officials.

Many of the extremists are battle-hardened former members of Saddam Hussein's elite Republican Guard who are intimately familiar with Iraq's dusty terrain and tribal connections, say the U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the information by name.

The Islamic State, which has been disavowed by al-Qaida in a dispute over strategy, wants to strike a terrorist blow at the U.S. to assert its primacy in the jihadist movement, said Derek Harvey, a former Defense Intelligence Agency official who advises U.S. Central Command.

"They have been planning do to this for some time," he said. "We just don't know when."

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