McCain: Americans now more likely to support US troops in Iraq, Syria

Since the Paris attacks, Sen. John McCain said Wednesday, Americans are more likely to back calls for a more aggressive role in the fight against the Islamic State.

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
Sen. John McCain speaks at a Monitor-hosted breakfast for reporters in Washington, D.C., Dec. 2, 2015.

The Paris attacks, for which the Islamic State (IS) has claimed responsibility, have changed the willingness of many Americans to support more US troops going to Iraq and Syria, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona argued Wednesday morning.

Senator McCain and his GOP colleague Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina have called for 20,000 additional US troops to be sent – 10,000 to Iraq and 10,000 to Syria – to help wage war against IS.

“Before Paris, I’d probably think that we can’t get the numbers,” in terms of both support from the American people and subsequent votes by Congress, McCain said. 

Since the Paris attacks, however, Americans are more likely to back such a move, along with the lawmakers who represent them, he posited Wednesday at a breakfast hosted by the Monitor.

Yet for that to happen, President Obama must make a case to the American people, says McCain, who just returned from three days in Iraq traveling in a congressional delegation with Senator Graham.

This includes explaining “the threat, the extent of it, and what we need to do,” he added. “It’s one thing to say, ‘We need more troops.’ It’s another to say, ‘Here’s why we need more troops.’ ”

There has been no shortage of McCain and GOP colleagues, including Graham, decrying the threat. 

IS is the “first terrorist organization in I don’t know how long that has a base,” McCain warned, adding that “they’re working on chemical weapons in Raqqa,” the de facto capital of IS in Syria.

At the same time, there are some promising developments in the US military campaign against IS, McCain acknowledges. 

For starters, the Iraqi city of Ramadi, long a Sunni stronghold, “is now surrounded” by Iraqi forces waging a campaign to oust IS. “I think it’s pretty clear that Ramadi will fall,” McCain said. Precisely when “depends on the activities of the Iraqi military, which has been very, very slow” to go into the city.

The cities that have been occupied by IS for months are a particularly risky venture for Iraqi forces, which are planning to wage urban warfare in cities that have been booby-trapped by IS troops, he adds.

Although many IS forces are leaving the cities, that doesn’t solve the problem. “There are only a few hundred” IS forces left in Ramadi right now, “but the place is a deathtrap, as you know,” McCain says.

Still, the Iraqi military has made strides in cities like Erbil and Baghdad. What’s more, due to aggressive US targeting of IS fighters, “the inflow of Europeans in particular” to the region is “not nearly as large as they were a year ago.”

During his trip to Iraq, McCain said, “every Iraqi military leader” told him “off the record” that they want “more American participation” in the war against IS there.

Publicly, however, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said Tuesday that although he would welcome more US-provided weapons, Iraqi forces are capable of defeating IS without the help of foreign troops, including those from the United States. 

Mr. Abadi called for “full respect to Iraqi sovereignty” in this matter.

McCain responded that because Iranian-backed Shiite militias oppose US participation on the ground, Iraqi leaders, including Abadi, cannot publicly call for US troops.

“The Iranians do not dictate to Abadi, but they are a brake on Abadi’s ability to exercise other options,” he said.

“In our meeting with [Abadi], he was much more agreeable to having increased US participation,” McCain added Wednesday. 

“The Shia militias have said, we will not accept an American permanent base in Iraq,” he said. “Who in their right mind would not want an American presence in Iraq? Nobody but Iranian-controlled people.”

So, what to do when Iraqis publicly oppose the presence of US troops? “I think in the short term there’s going to be a lot of ‘wink wink, nod nod,’ ” McCain said.

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