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Obama authorises airstrikes in Syria to fight Islamic State militants

WASHINGTON: Barack Obama has authorised airstrikes in Syria for the first time in a major escalation of the military campaign against the Islamic State.

In a live televised address, the US President also announced expanded strikes in Iraq as part of a steady, relentless effort to root out IS extremists. “We will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are,” Obama told Americans.

“That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq,” he said, using an acronym to describe the group. “This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”

The prime-time address came on the eve of the 13th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. The President said that while there was no evidence IS was plotting to strike America, “if left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region, including to the United States.”

The decision to authorise airstrikes in Syria marks a turnabout for the President, who had been wary of dragging the US military into a country embroiled in a three-year civil war. Last year, he shied away from airstrikes to punish Syrian President Bashar al Assad for using chemical weapons against his own people.

The plans also amounted to a striking shift for a President who rose to political prominence in part because of his early opposition to the Iraq war.

Obama said he was dispatching nearly 500 more US troops to assist Iraqi security forces and conduct intelligence and reconnaissance flights, bringing the total number of American forces sent there this summer to more than 1,500.

But he insisted the military would not be dragged into another ground war, saying that "these American forces will not have a combat mission" and that the campaign "will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil".

The President also urged Congress to authorise a programme to train and arm Syrian rebels who are fighting both the Islamic State militants and the Assad regime.

IS has been on the warpath in Iraq and Syria, taking large swathes of territory and putting US lives at risk, according to the White House. In the last few weeks, IS has released videos of its militants beheading kidnapped American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.