World appalled by beheading, Obama says, as U.S. continues airstrikes

Published Aug. 21, 2014

EDGARTOWN, Mass. — President Barack Obama declared Wednesday that the entire world was "appalled" by the videotaped beheading of an American journalist by Islamic militants, speaking as American warplanes conducted 14 airstrikes in Iraq and the State Department asked the Pentagon to send as many as 300 more American troops to Iraq for security.

"The United States of America will continue to do what we must do to protect our people," the president said from Martha's Vineyard, where he was vacationing. "We will be vigilant, and we will be relentless."

Obama's remarks came hours before administration officials said that the president had authorized a secret mission in July to rescue James Foley, and other American hostages in a remote area of Syria. But when commandos arrived, the hostages were not there, U.S. officials said.

Obama's harsh remarks, the failed rescue mission and Wednesday's military action reflected new pressure on the administration not to step back from the assault on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, as well as a recognition of the grim reality that other American hostages held by the group face a similar threat.

The events also marked a shift in the complexion of the American confrontation with the terrorist group — until now an abstraction to most Americans — after its release of a gruesome video depicting the beheading of Foley, which ISIS militants said was in retaliation for the U.S. airstrikes in Iraq. ISIS threatened to kill another American journalist held hostage, Steven Sotloff, who is from Miami, if the airstrikes continue.

Within an hour after Obama's remarks, in which he pronounced ISIS a "cancer" that had to be expelled from the Middle East, the U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East, announced it had carried out 14 more airstrikes around the Mosul Dam and destroyed more ISIS military vehicles and equipment. There have so far been 84 U.S. airstrikes since Obama first announced the offensive against the militants on Aug. 7.

Secretary of State John Kerry stepped up the administration's tough tone. "Make no mistake: We will continue to confront ISIL wherever it tries to spread its despicable hatred," he said in a statement, using an alternative acronym for the extremist organization.

"The world must know that the United States of America will never back down in the face of such evil. ISIL and the wickedness it represents must be destroyed, and those responsible for this heinous, vicious atrocity will be held accountable."

The graphic video of Foley's beheading — released Tuesday night and verified by intelligence officials Wednesday as authentic — sparked renewed debate about U.S. objectives in Iraq, where this week the Pentagon's warplanes unleashed a barrage of bombs in an expansion of the limited goals of protecting Americans and providing humanitarian aid initially set forth by Obama.

Despite the attacks, ISIS continued its sweep across Iraq and laid siege to Amerli, a small town in the nation's center, where residents and an Iraqi army unit stuck inside are running low on food, medicine and water. Aid dropped by Iraqi army helicopters has failed to meet the town's needs.

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"The situation here is going from bad to worse because we are running out of all things needed for life," said Adel al-Bayati, a local official reached by phone in the town Wednesday.

The plight of Amerli — home to members of Iraq's Turkmen minority, who are Shiite Muslims considered infidels by ISIS — has raised alarm in Iraq and abroad because it bears similarities to other areas where the Sunni militant group has committed mass killings as they have seized territory across northern and western Iraq.

On Martha's Vineyard, Obama said he spoke by phone to Foley's parents, telling them that Americans "are all heartbroken at their loss." He described Foley as a journalist, a son, a brother and a friend who was "taken from us in an act of violence that shocked the conscience of the entire world."

He made no mention of Sotloff, whose life, according to the masked executioner that stands by his side, hinges on Obama's "next move."

At the State Department, a spokeswoman said other American hostages held by the militants will not change American plans for additional airstrikes. "We don't make concessions to terrorists," said Marie Harf, the spokeswoman.

Obama's fear that ISIS militants would massacre Yazidis, another religious minority, as they fled across the rugged Sinjar mountains, was one of his stated reasons for authorizing American airstrikes Aug. 7.

In his remarks Wednesday, Obama said ISIS had committed torture and rape against innocent women and children and continued to enslave those they did not kill.

"Let's be clear about" ISIS, Obama said. "They have rampaged across cities and villages killing innocent, unarmed civilians in cowardly acts of violence. They abduct women and children and subject them to torture and rape and slavery."

"No faith teaches people to massacre innocents," Obama said. "No just God would stand for what they did yesterday and what they do every single day. People like this ultimately fail. They fail because the future is won by people who build and not destroy."