WASHINGTON — Al-Qaida-inspired militants who have violently seized territory in Iraq could grow in power and destabilize other countries in the region, President Barack Obama said in an interview that aired Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
The Iraqi public will ultimately reject the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the extremist Sunni group threatening Iraq’s government, but the group still represents a medium- and long-term threat to the United States, Obama said.
“We’re going to have to be vigilant generally. Right now the problem with ISIS is the fact that they’re destabilizing the country,” Obama said, using a common acronym for the group. “That could spill over into some of our allies like Jordan.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry echoed those remarks Sunday while urging Arab countries not to fund Sunni fighters in what is turning into a cross-border war between Iraq and Syria because that support eventually could help the fast-spreading insurgency in Iraq.
“This is a critical moment,” Kerry said after meeting with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, saying the group is a “threat not only to Iraq, but to the entire region.”
The Sunni insurgency in Iraq and neighboring Syria is just one of an array of threats the U.S. must guard against, Obama said in the interview, which was recorded on Friday.
“There is no safety margin whatsoever in funding a group like ISIL, and we particularly discourage individuals in the region who may have been sending money through some illicit charity or through various back-channel initiatives under the guise this is for the general welfare and benefit for people who have been displaced, but then that money finds its way into the hands of terrorists,” Kerry said.
“We are obviously discouraging any kind of support to entities where it is unsure where the money is going … and that goes to any government, any charity, any individual. We must not allow that kind of funding to be a part of this equation,” Kerry said.
U.S. officials later made clear that Kerry was not calling for an end to aid – financial or otherwise – to Syria’s moderate Sunni rebel forces. They have fought for more than three years to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose minority Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
It is possible that some support to Syrian rebels may wind up in insurgents’ hands due to the amount of overlap between Sunni fighters within and between the two counties.
A U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic matters said the U.S. is comfortable that the moderate opposition in Syria has enough control over its international assistance to prevent that from happening.
Obama said the rise of ISIS, as well as, Boko Haram in north Africa and al-Qaida groups in Yemen, demand the attention of the U.S. and its partners.
“What we can’t do is think that we’re just going to play whack-a-mole and send U.S. troops occupying various countries wherever these organizations pop up,” Obama said. “We’re going to have to have a more focused, more targeted strategy and we’re going to have to partner and train local law enforcement and military to do their jobs as well.”
Obama’s comments came as U.S. lawmakers and officials within his own administration are grappling with the best way to address the growing insurgency in Iraq just years after American troops pulled out. As bloody sectarian violence breaks out once again in Iraq, a president who opposed the Iraq war and vowed to end it is finding the U.S. being lured back into the conflict by the deteriorating security situation.
Obama has announced plans to send 300 special operations forces into Iraq to train its military, but insists the U.S. military can’t effectively quell the conflict unless Iraq’s own Shiite-led government pursues a more inclusive approach that doesn’t shun the Sunni minority.
The issue has divided Congress, with some lawmakers criticizing Obama for doing too little and others warning that the return of armed troops to Iraq could be the first step toward pulling the U.S. back into the conflict.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said the unwillingness of Iraq’s military to defend the city of Mosul begs the question of why the United State should.
“I’m not willing to send my son to defend that mess,” Paul said Sunday on CNN.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she believes the U.S. needs to be talking to Iran because it can play a major role in helping to prevent a major war between Sunnis and Shiites. She also voiced concerns about the need to build up intelligence to help track recruits from Europe and the United States who have gone to the Middle East to participate in the wars there.
“There will be plots to kill Americans,” she told CNN.
Some officials in the United States and the Mideast have suggested privately that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki must leave office before Iraq’s Sunnis will believe their concerns will be heard by the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.
But al-Maliki has showed no indication he is willing to step down, and his political party won the most votes in national elections in April.
Both Kerry and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said it’s up to Iraqis to decide their leaders, but at the same time they said Baghdad must create an inclusive government if it hopes to quell the violence.
Shoukry, in a joint news conference with Kerry, said Egypt is worried about any spillover effects the unrest in Iraq will cause its Arab neighbors.
He said Egypt is looking to work with other countries to help the Iraqi people.