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WASHINGTON (CNN) — It’s time to go after ISIS in Iraq and Syria, President Barack Obama will tell the country Wednesday night in a nationally televised address intended to sell stepped-up military efforts to a war-weary public.
Excerpts released by the White House in advance signaled that Obama planned airstrikes on ISIS targets in Syria as well as Iraq, taking a step advocated by a growing number of U.S. politicians with increasing public support.
The speech from the White House also will seek to convince allies of a firm U.S. commitment to join them in an international coalition to fight the Sunni jihadists who rampaged across northern Iraq from Syria this year. They are known as ISIS, ISIL and Islamic State.
“A steady, relentless effort”
“This counterterrorism 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,” Obama will say.
At the same time, he will make clear the strategy differed from all-out war again in Iraq less than three years after he withdrew combat forces from the country.
“It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil,” Obama will say, according to the excerpts.
Noting the formation of a new Iraqi government, which his administration has demanded, Obama will announce that “America will lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat.”
Objective: “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS
“Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy,” he will say.
Also Wednesday, Obama shifted $25 million in military aid to Iraqi forces, including Kurdish fighters in the north combating the ISIS extremists. The aid could include ammunition, small arms and vehicles, as well as military education and training, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said.
Obama has been criticized by conservatives and some Democrats for what they call a timid response so far to the threat by ISIS fighters. The recent beheading of two American journalists held captive by ISIS raised public awareness of the extremists and the threat they pose.
A senior administration official told CNN chief political analyst Gloria Borger that Obama’s message was “the next phase is offense” against ISIS, and that the President sought international support before speaking publicly about his strategy.
“Until you have a coalition, it’s hard to explain how this will work,” the official said.
Former White House spokesman Jay Carney, now a CNN contributor, said his ex-boss would detail what he’s willing to do but may not announce specific actions in the speech.
Carney on Obama
“The case as I understand it that he’ll make is one that would encompass both action in Iraq and Syria under the general premise that this organization is a threat to the stability of the region, to a number of allies in the region and to the broader world, including the United States, and therefore going after that threat including leaders of this organization is necessary,” Carney said a few hours before Obama spoke.
Obama needs to “make clear tonight to the country why we need to do this, what the plan is, what the coalition looks like, where we will be and not just after we expand the number of strikes and even the zone and the area where we are striking, but what the broader plan is,” Carney said.
U.S. officials say Obama is open to conducting airstrikes in Syria, and he already asked Congress for the authority to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels to fight the ISIS extremists.
Such authority comes under Title 10 of the U.S. code, which deals with military powers, and Congress could vote on granting it next week. Approval also would allow the United States to accept money from other countries for backing the Syrian opposition forces.
Most voices in Congress back strong U.S. action against the ISIS fighters. However, any vote on military action can be risky, especially with congressional elections less than two months off.
The fraught politics of the issue were clear on Wednesday, when House Republican leaders put off a vote on a government spending measure set for Wednesday after pressure emerged to add the Title 10 authorization to it.
Meanwhile, a Syrian opposition official told CNN’s Jim Sciutto that rebel leaders were “very pleased” with Obama’s strategy. In particular, the official praised having the Defense Department provide the assistance instead of the existing covert CIA-run effort, saying it would allow the mission to expand.
Obama initially rejected arming the Syrian opposition against President Bashar al-Assad more than two years ago to avoid getting mired in another Middle East conflict. U.S. officials also feared American weapons could end up in the hands of extremists, such as al Qaeda affiliates that eventually morphed into ISIS.
As the tide has turned against Syria’s opposition, which now finds itself fighting both government forces and ISIS, the United States began its covert aid to some rebel factions.
On Tuesday, Obama told congressional leaders he has the authority to carry out his planned strategy against ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria without authorization from legislators. The strategy so far has included airstrikes on ISIS targets in Iraq to protect Americans, aid the Iraqis and provide humanitarian support.
Veteran diplomat: ISIS worse than al Qaeda
Former U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker, who served in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, told CNN on Wednesday that ISIS presents a bigger threat to America than al Qaeda.
“They are more numerous, they are better armed, they are far better financed, they are better experienced, and perhaps most critically there are several thousand of them who hold Western passports, including American passports,” Crocker said. “They don’t need to get a visa; they just need to get on a plane.”
He added: “If we don’t think we’re on their target list, we are delusional.”
White House: Obama will present ‘comprehensive strategy’
A White House statement said Obama’s speech will explain “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 — both the opposition in Syria and a new, inclusive Iraqi government.”
“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, and will talk about how we work with the Congress as a partner in these efforts,” it continued.
U.S. diplomatic efforts this week seek to solidify the coalition. Secretary of State John Kerry left Tuesday to push Sunni leaders in Jordan and Saudi Arabia to join the United States and its allies in combating ISIS, while Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Lisa Monaco, the homeland security adviser, also will be in the region.
Show of unity with Congress would help
After his meeting with top congressional leaders at the White House on Tuesday, Obama asked for their support to show the nation was united.
However, he insisted he already has the authority to ratchet up airstrikes against ISIS under war power granted more than a decade ago to fight al Qaeda. ISIS formed from some al Qaeda affiliates but is separate from the central leadership of the terrorist organization behind the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
On Wednesday, two senior legislators — one from each party — told CNN’s Dana Bash that a congressional vote on military action against the jihadists was unlikely despite calls for one by many of their colleagues.
While some in Congress want to vote on the matter, taking up such a volatile issue as military action weeks before the November elections may be politically dangerous.
CNN’s Jim Acosta, Diane Ruggiero, Elise Labott, Kevin Liptak, Josh Levs and Faith Karimi contributed to this report.