Obama signs nearly $578 billion defense bill for fiscal 2015

U.S. President Barack Obama answers a question after his end of the year press conference in the briefing room of the White House in Washington December 19, 2014. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama signed an annual defense policy bill on Friday that authorizes U.S. training for Iraqi and Syrian forces fighting Islamic State rebels and sets overall defense spending at nearly $578 billion, including about $64 billion for wars abroad.

The legislation, approved by Congress earlier this month, sets defense policy and authorizes spending levels for the 2015 fiscal year, which began on Oct. 1, but does not actually appropriate funding.

The bill approves a Pentagon base budget of $496 billion, in line with Obama’s request, plus nearly $64 billion for conflicts abroad including the war in Afghanistan. It also authorizes $17.9 billion for Energy Department nuclear weapons work.

The measure formally endorses the Pentagon’s plan to vet, train and equip a moderate Syrian opposition military force to fight Islamic State rebels, defend the Syrian people and promote conditions for a negotiated end to Syria’s civil war.

The U.S. military program to train and assist Iraqi and Kurdish forces fighting Islamic State militants also was authorized.

The bill takes new steps to control personnel costs, which consume about half the Pentagon budget, essentially approving a year’s worth of proposed long-term reforms but delaying further action pending a report in February from a congressionally appointed commission on military compensation.

In announcing that he had signed the bill, Obama called on Congress to join him in closing the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo, Cuba, where terrorism suspects are held. Republicans have resisted Obama’s attempts to close the facility.

“The Guantanamo detention facility’s continued operation undermines our national security. We must close it,” he said.

Reporting by Steve Holland and David Alexander