US officially 'at war' with Islamic State

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Despite Kerry's reservations on using the word 'war' when referring to anti-IS military operations, White House confirms 'we are at war'

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest at a briefing on 29 August, 2014 in Washington, DC (AFP)
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Thursday 12 February 2015 23:45 UTC
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The White House declared Friday the United States was at war with Islamic State (IS) militants, seeking to rub out another semantic flap over its Syria policy.

In a series of television interviews Secretary of State John Kerry had appeared to be reluctant to term the expansion of US operations against IS in Iraq and Syria as "war."

But pressed to clear up doubts about how President Barack Obama sees the conflict, the White House and Pentagon left little doubt.

"The United States is at war with ISIL in the same way that we are at war with Al-Qaeda and its Al-Qaeda affiliates all around the globe," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.

Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said that the US was not fighting the last Iraq war and used similar language to Earnest.

"But make no mistake, we know we are at war with ISIL in the same way we're at war and continue to be at war with Al-Qaida and its affiliates," he said.

Obama is scheduled to be in Tampa, Florida Wednesday to receive a briefing from top commanders at US Central Command, which oversees American forces in the Middle East.

In interviews on Thursday, as Kerry toured the Middle East building an anti-IS coalition, he was reluctant to use the term "war" in referring to the US campaign, telling people not to indulge in "war fever."

'Wrong terminology'

"We're engaged in a major counterterrorism operation, and it's going to be a long-term counterterrorism operation," Kerry told CBS News.

"I think 'war' is the wrong terminology and analogy but the fact is that we are engaged in a very significant global effort to curb terrorist activity," Kerry said.

"If somebody wants to think about it as being a war with ISIL, they can do so, but the fact is it's a major counterterrorism operation that will have many different moving parts," he said.

The apparent difference in characterization between officials may also stem from constitutional regulations over the power to declare war.

The dispute over wording may seem trivial when American planes and drones have been pounding Islamic State targets in Iraq for weeks in more than 160 operations.

But it indicates the administration is skittish about using language that could alarm Americans weary of years of foreign conflict and who embraced Obama's vow to "end" the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq during two presidential election campaigns.

Obama under fire

"The first thing that's important for people to understand is the president has made clear how the strategy that he is pursuing in Iraq and Syria to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL is different than the strategy that was pursued in the previous Iraq War," said Earnest on Friday.

Obama's new strategy, announced in a prime-time televised address on Wednesday, expands US air strikes in Iraq against IS and envisages new action against the group in Syria.

But he has insisted that there will be no deployments of US ground troops in the operation -- especially none that would recall the vast US land armies that were targeted by insurgents in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The debate over the word "war" is only the latest verbal kerfuffle to hamper Obama's attempts to clarify his increasingly under-fire foreign policy.

Critics from the Republican Party or who adopt hawkish foreign policy views accused the administration of seeking to "manage" the problem of militants rather than seeking to decimate it.

On Wednesday, Obama said that his goal was to "destroy" IS.