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Obama's U.N. Speech Aims To Enlist Others In Fight Against ISIS

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Some weeks ago, President Obama was criticized for saying we don't have a strategy yet for attacking ISIS in Syria.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Weeks later, the strategy still may not be fully apparent, but the U.S. does have allies. Five Arab nations joined in this week's air strikes against ISIS in Syria.

INSKEEP: President Obama's working to line up more allies while meeting other world leaders this week at the United Nations, and in New York City the president held a meeting with some of the countries that have already joined up. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Half a world away from the Syrian Desert where the bombs fell, President Obama joined leaders of five Arab countries at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. He thanked them for their participation in this week's air assault and said support from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Emirates sends a clear message that the world is united in its opposition to the militants, also known as ISIL or ISIS.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: All of us are committed to making sure that we degrade and ultimately destroy not only ISIL, but also the kinds of extremist ideologies that would lead to so much bloodshed.

HORSLEY: Support from Sunni Arabs is particularly important to the White House to diffuse the charge that the U.S. is leading a Western attack on Muslims. But Obama is also trying to enlist a broader coalition for a fight the U.S. can't wage on its own. So far, the administration says, more than 40 countries have volunteered to help in the battle against ISIS. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes says that help will take a variety of forms, not all of them military.

DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR BEN RHODES: For this to succeed it's not just going to be about airstrikes; it's going to be about the effectiveness of the Iraqi security forces, Kurdish forces and Syria opposition forces. And then absolutely we are going to need the cooperation of many countries to cut off ISIL financing and to stop the flow of foreign fighters.

HORSLEY: The U.S. estimates some 15,000 foreign fighters have joined ISIS or other militant groups in Syria and Iraq, including more than 100 Americans and about 2000 Europeans. For the moment those fighters are primarily focused on local battles in the Middle East, but there's a concern the Americans and Europeans could eventually return home, coupling their Western passports with newfound terrorist skills. Later today Obama chairs a UN Security Council meeting aimed at discouraging this cross-border flow. Rhodes notes Obama is also addressing world leaders this week on other challenges that span national boundaries, including the Ebola epidemic in West Africa and climate change.

RHODES: So there are many different issues at play in the world today. We believe that the constant thread between them is U.S. leadership, and I think you'll see the president offer his vision of how U.S. leadership is going to deal with this set of challenges at a moment when frankly nations need to be stepping up to the plate and coming together.

HORSLEY: Obama has been criticized for what some see as an overdue response to ISIS, but the administration argues it was important for Iraq to form a more inclusive government before the U.S. ramped up its airstrikes. The U.S. is counting on that new government to enlist more help from Iraqi Sunnis in battling ISIS. Rhodes says Obama meets today with Iraq's new Prime Minister, Haider Abadi.

RHODES: We believe Prime Minister Abadi's off to a very strong start, and we want to discuss how to cooperate going forward and also frankly how to cooperate with this coalition of countries that want to contribute to Iraq's future as well.

HORSLEY: While the administration does not believe ISIS has any immediate plans to attack the U.S., that's not true of another militant outfit in Syria known as the Khorasan group. The administration says this group, which includes former al-Qaida members, was plotting imminent attacks on Western targets. Eight of the airstrikes launched Monday night were aimed at the Khorasan group. While military commanders stressed the broad coalition Battling ISIS, they made it clear the preemptive strikes against the Khorasan group were carried out by the U.S. alone. Scott Horsley, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.