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Obama Meets With Generals Planning IS Assault

Tampa (AFP) — President Barack Obama meets Wednesday with generals planning his assault against the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq as he wraps up a two-day trip devoted to sudden national security crises over jihadism and Ebola.

Obama will sit down with General Lloyd Austin, chief of U.S. Central Command at his Florida headquarters, to assess how the military is following through on his new strategy to combat IS announced last week.

U.S. jets in Iraq have already made good on Obama’s vow to expand the mandate of American forces to go after the extremist Sunni group in Iraq, following the first raids of the stepped up campaign outside Baghdad overnight Monday.

His effort won a rare Republican endorsement on Tuesday when the party’s leaders in the House of Representatives and the Senate backed his strategy.

But some lawmakers still complained it lacks punch, reflecting the president’s long-held desire to avoid another Middle East war.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that Obama had asked to visit MacDill Air Force base, where Centcom is headquartered, after giving his speech on his new anti-IS strategy on September 10.

The president “plans to discuss the plan for building an international coalition to degrade and destroy (IS),” Earnest said.

Obama, who will give public remarks during his trip to the base, will also meet senior representatives from nations that form part of Central Command’s theater of operations, which encompasses the troubled belt of South Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East.

“Many of these nations will be an important part of the international coalition that the President will be leading against IS,” said Earnest.

Obama is under pressure to demonstrate that his coalition of European and Middle Eastern nations is a legitimate fighting force and not simply an alliance drummed up by his administration for political convenience.

– Intense diplomacy –

Officials say the president will conduct intense diplomacy next week on firming up the grouping to go after Islamic State, when he is at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

The White House was forced Tuesday into its latest effort to clarify its strategy on IS, after his top U.S. military officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, said U.S. advisors could yet be sent into combat alongside Iraqi forces against IS.

That statement appeared to call into question the president’s repeated vow that there will be no U.S. “boots on the ground” deployments in Iraq, after he fulfilled his campaign promise to bring U.S. forces home.

Earnest sought to finesse the situation, saying that Dempsey was merely “referring to a hypothetical scenario in which there might be a future situation in which he might make a tactical recommendation.”

The administration is encouraged by bipartisan work under way on Capitol Hill to give the president the authority to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels to pressure IS inside Syria when US air strikes finally begin in the country.

Republican House Speaker John Boehner on Tuesday said he believed the president’s strategy was a “sound one.”

“There’s no reason for us not to do what the president asked us to do,” he said.

There are still some reservations, though.

“I don’t think the president’s strategy is ever very clear, or sufficiently clear,” said Republican Senator John Thune.

“The American people got there before he did … but I think at least the president is ending up in what I think is the right place” with a request for authorization to train and equip vetted rebels.”

– Act fast on Ebola –

Obama arrived in Tampa from Atlanta, Georgia, where he visited the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to meet medical chiefs planning his other new strategy — to combat the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.

In striking language, the president warned that the world must “act fast” to stop the spread of the horrific disease, which has killed more than 2,400 people, and said that “hundreds of thousands” could possibly be affected in a worse case scenario.

“Here’s the hard truth. In West Africa, Ebola is now an epidemic of the likes that we have not seen before,” Obama said.

“It’s spiraling out of control. It is getting worse. It’s spreading faster and exponentially.”

Obama will send 3,000 U.S. military personnel to West Africa to train health care workers, build treatment centers and coordinate a global anti-Ebola effort in the region.

AFP Photo/Saul Loeb

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Obama Sends 3,000 Troops To West Africa To ‘Turn Tide’ On Ebola

Washington (AFP) — U.S. President Barack Obama will try to “turn the tide” on the Ebola epidemic Tuesday by ordering 3,000 U.S. military personnel to west Africa to curtail its spread as China also dispatched more experts to the region.

The White House said Obama will travel to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta — where U.S. Ebola victims were treated — to make the announcement, meant to spur a global effort to tackle the outbreak that has already killed 2,400 people.

It comes as alarm grows that the worst-ever Ebola epidemic which spread through Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea before reaching Nigeria, is out of control. A separate strain of the disease has appeared in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Most of the U.S. effort, which will draw heavily on its military medical corps, will be concentrated in impoverished Liberia — the worst hit nation — with plans to build 17 Ebola treatment centers with 100 beds in each.

China is also sending more medics to neighboring Sierra Leone to help boost laboratory testing for the virus, raising the total number of Chinese medical experts there to 174, the U.N. said Tuesday.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said Tuesday it was reconvening its emergency committee in Geneva which declared the outbreak an international health emergency in August, to consider further measures to limit its spread.

Obama will announce that U.S. Africa Command will set up a headquarters in the Sierra Leone capital Monrovia to act as a command and control center for U.S. military and international relief programs.

– 500 health workers a week –

But the main element of the push is a six-month training and hygiene drive to tackle the disease head-on.

U.S. advisers will train up to 500 Liberian health care providers per week in how to safely handle and treat victims and their families in a bid to shore up the country’s overwhelmed health infrastructure.

The intervention will involve an estimated 3,000 U.S. military personnel, senior officials said, many working at a staging base for transit of equipment and personnel.

Washington will also send 65 experts from the public health service corps to Liberia to manage and staff a previously announced U.S. military hospital to care for health workers who become sick with Ebola.

Ebola prevention kits, including disinfectant and advice, will also be supplied to 400,000 of the most vulnerable families in Liberia.

“What is clear is in order to combat and contain the outbreak at its source, we need to partner and lead an international response,” said one senior U.S. official, on condition of anonymity.

China said it is sending a mobile laboratory team to Sierra Leone, where more than 500 people have died so far from Ebola. The 59-person team from the Chinese Center for Disease Control will include epidemiologists, clinicians and nurses, the WHO said.

“The newly announced team will join 115 Chinese medical staff on the ground in Sierra Leone virtually since the beginning,” the agency’s chief Margaret Chan said, hailing the new commitment as “a huge boost, morally and operationally”.

– ‘No threat to U.S.’ –

The Obama administration believes its latest emergency action could help “turn the tide” and slow the spread of the epidemic.

The White House however still believes that there is no realistic threat to the United States from Ebola. It believes that any cases that do materialize on the U.S. soil would be quickly isolated.

The U.S. has so far spent $100 million on fighting the epidemic and the U.S. Agency for International Development plans to allocate another $75 million to increase the number of Ebola treatment units and buy protective gear for health providers.

In addition, the administration has asked Congress for a further $88 million. The money is contained in a short term bill to fund the government until mid-December which could pass Congress this week.

More than 100 workers from Centers for Disease Control are already at work in west Africa, and many more staff are coordinating their work at the agency’s Atlanta headquarters.

It was unclear how many of the new U.S. personnel would be deployed in direct contact with patients. The number however appears limited.

Obama first said last week that he was going to use a major military deployment to step up U.S. efforts to fight the epidemic.

His remarks, and a recent YouTube message from the president offering guidance to the people of west Africa on halting infections, highlight increasing White House concern about the implications of the rapid spread of the disease.

AFP Photo/Inaki Gomez

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U.S. Yet To Make Big Move To Seek Gaza Peace

By Stephen Collinson

Washington (AFP) — The United States stuck to arm’s length diplomacy Wednesday even as the battle of Gaza saw Palestinian children cut down on the seashore and fresh volleys of Hamas rockets streak toward Israel.

Whether it is fatigue with Middle East peace making, a paucity of partners to pressure Hamas into concessions, or the fact that its focus is elsewhere, the Obama administration has yet to throw itself wholeheartedly into an effort to end the violence.

Washington, a key player in the 2012 ceasefire deal that ended a previous similar showdown, has shown no sign of pressuring Israel to back off, even as the Palestinian death toll has topped 220. One Israeli has died as a result of Hamas action.

America’s primary involvement in the drama has been behind the scenes, with Secretary of State John Kerry making multiple phone calls to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and regional players like Egypt, Qatar, and Turkey.

President Barack Obama has also spoken to Netanyahu.

Officials declined to go into details of those conversations, but it seemed likely that they centered on the framework of a possible deal that could be presented to Hamas and Israel when political and military conditions line up.

In public, Washington has been careful to express deep concern for civilians on both sides of the Gaza/Israel border: Obama said television pictures of the wounded were heartbreaking.

“We’re going to continue to encourage diplomatic efforts to restore the ceasefire, and we support Egypt’s continued efforts to bring this about,” Obama said.

On Monday, he had chosen the symbolic venue of a White House Iftar dinner breaking the fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan to describe the Hamas rocket barrage as “inexcusable.”

Obama has had a sometimes tenuous relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but his aides have made clear who he thinks is to blame for the latest Middle East maelstrom.

“We certainly would like to see Hamas accept the ceasefire. We certainly would like to see Hamas stop firing rockets aimed squarely at innocent civilians in Israel,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.

“There is no doubt about that.”

– U.S. moves –

So why has Washington –- often the key player in mediating Middle East conflicts — not stepped in?

It is an oft repeated cliche of U.S. peacemaking in the Middle East that Washington cannot want solutions more than the parties themselves.

And so far neither Israel nor Hamas appear to have extracted sufficient advantage from the clash to build up significant political cover to make any concessions in a ceasefire deal.

Israel has not yet succeeded in degrading the Hamas arsenal sufficiently to stop rocket attacks. Hamas, at a moment of political weakness, may judge it is benefiting from the showdown –- despite growing civilian carnage.

“The Israeli government as a whole… doesn’t expect to gain any significant political advantages from this –- they just want the rockets to stop,” said David Pollock of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“Hamas does want to gain some political advantages, or at least to say it gained some advantages by relaxing what it calls the siege, or some other concessions. That’s why they keep doing this.”

Netanyahu bought more goodwill and time from the international community by accepting an Egyptian ceasefire proposal that Hamas refused.

Israel also agreed to a temporary humanitarian truce. This time, the Islamist movement joined in.

One factor distinguishing the current Gaza showdown from the 2012 conflagration is the diminished leverage of Egypt, which has in turn left Washington looking for partners.

Last time around, Egypt’s then Muslim Brotherhood government had links to Hamas, and joined then U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton to negotiate a ceasefire.

Egypt’s current government, which emerged from the military’s ouster of president Mohamed Morsi, has cracked down on the Islamist group –- and therefore has less leverage.

The killing of four Palestinian children by suspected Israeli shelling notwithstanding, the civilian carnage seems yet to have reached a critical mass that might incite political pressure on Washington to weigh in.

Several veteran Washington Middle East watchers privately wondered this week if the brutality tearing Iraq and Syria apart had left the suffering in Gaza seem less severe by comparison.

And the Obama administration may also be slow to move because it has not yet come under overt decisive pressure from European and Arab allies to intervene –- reflecting Hamas’s growing isolation.

Israel has also heeded U.S. advice, so far, not to launch a ground invasion of Gaza.

But there were signs the diplomacy was cranking up.

Deputy Hamas leader Mussa Abu Marzuq met Egyptian officials in Cairo. Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas also flew to the Egyptian capital.

Aides hinted that Kerry could travel soon, if it would help.

AFP Photo / Anwar Amro

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