WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama is implicitly acknowledging that progress against the Islamic State has been too slow as the extremist group expands its reach with deadly attacks beyond the Middle East.
He vowed Monday to accelerate the U.S.-led military campaign in both Syria and Iraq, and revealed that a group of American special operations commandos has begun working with local fighters in Syria to "tighten the squeeze" on Raqqa, the extremists' nominal capital. Speaking at the Pentagon after meeting with his National Security Council, Obama cited this — in addition to intensified bombing of the oil infrastructure in Syria that provides much of the Islamic State's revenue — as an example of aggressive new action.
The administration announced in late October that Obama had approved sending up to 50 special operations troops to Syria on the first open-ended mission by U.S. ground forces in Syria. Until Monday, U.S. officials had refused to say whether the American commandos had begun their mission.
Obama said his strategy is moving ahead with "a great sense of urgency," an assertion that critics say belies the slow pace of progress in Iraq and Syria. Drawing an implied contrast with military prescriptions offered by Republican presidential candidates, including Ted Cruz's call to "carpet bomb them into oblivion," Obama said, "We have to be smart, targeting ISIL surgically, with precision" airstrikes while local forces do the ground combat.
As national security takes center stage in the presidential race, Obama also is hoping to counter Donald Trump and his inflammatory remarks about Muslims, which Obama believes endanger U.S. national security.
On a conference call Monday with religious leaders, top White House officials pledged vigilance by the Justice Department in pursuing hate crimes and other civil rights violations, calling an attack on any faith an attack on all faiths. Obama's aides were also holding separate meetings at the White House with Muslim leaders and with Sikh leaders.
The president's appearance at the Pentagon was part of a weeklong push to explain his strategy for stopping the Islamic State group abroad and its sympathizers at home. Obama is scheduled to attend a briefing at the National Counterterrorism Center on Thursday. He noted that his defense secretary, Ash Carter, was undertaking a trip to Turkey and the Middle East to seek more coalition military contributions to the campaign to counter the Islamic State group.
Obama also dispatched Secretary of State John Kerry to Moscow to try to narrow gaps with Russia over a political transition to end Syria's civil war.
The president's string of terror-related appearances this week, shortly before Christmas, comes amid public jitters about the specter of extremism after deadly attacks in California and Paris. Seven in 10 Americans rate the risk of an attack in the U.S. as at least somewhat high, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll — a sharp increase from the five in 10 who said that in January. Just 28 percent in the survey said Obama had clearly explained the United States' goals in fighting the Islamic State, while 68 percent said he had not.