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Obama downplays IS threat, calls for end to anti-Muslim rhetoric

In final State of the Union, Obama calls for closure of Guantanamo Bay detention centre, continuing the air campaign against IS
President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, 12 Jan, 2016.

In his final State of the Union address, President Barack Obama on Tuesday told Americans to bridge racial, religious and political divides, amid an election cycle that has largely focused on the threat of the Islamic State (IS) group, debates over Syrian refugees and rhetoric about Muslim Americans.

Obama warned against overemphasising the rise of the IS group, which he admitted poses an "enormous danger". 

But he stressed: "They do not threaten our national existence."

"Over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands," he said.

"Our answer needs to be more than tough talk or calls to carpet bomb civilians. That may work as a TV sound bite, but it doesn’t pass muster on the world stage."

In referring to calls for carpet bombing, Obama was referencing a campaign promise made by Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who has been a major critic of the president's policy aimed at defeating the hardline group in Iraq and Syria.

"We just need to call (IS) what they are  -  killers and fanatics who have to be rooted out, hunted down, and destroyed," Obama said.

The IS group seized large swathes of Iraq and Syria in 2014 and has been the target of a US-led international air strike campaign.

Obama lauded what he said were the campaign's successes. "For more than a year, America has led a coalition of more than 60 countries to cut off [IS's] financing, disrupt their plots, stop the flow of terrorist fighters, and stamp out their vicious ideology. With nearly 10,000 air strikes, we are taking out their leadership, their oil, their training camps, and their weapons."

The president also urged Congress to help him close the detention centre at the US military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"It's expensive, it's unnecessary and it only serves as a recruitment brochure for our enemies," he declared.

The president also sought to quell growing Islamophobia and continued racism in the United States.

"We need to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion," he said. 

"When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalised, or a kid bullied, that doesn’t make us safer. That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. And it betrays who we are as a country."

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country following a deadly attack in San Bernardino, California perpetrated by a Muslim couple.

"The world respects us not just for our arsenal; it respects us for our diversity and our openness and the way we respect every faith."