Only Iran is confronting ISIS, says commander of Quds Force

Reuters reports: The general in charge of Iran’s paramilitary activities in the Middle East said the United States and other powers were failing to confront Islamic State, and only Iran was committed to the task, a news agency on Monday reported.

Major General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the elite Quds Force responsible for protecting the Islamic Republic’s interests abroad, has become a familiar face on the battlefields of Iraq, where he often outranks local commanders.

“Today, in the fight against this dangerous phenomenon, nobody is present except Iran,” the Tasnim news agency quoted Soleimani as saying on Sunday in reference to Islamic State.

Iran should help countries suffering at the hands of Islamic State, said Soleimani, whose force is part of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Mehr news agency reported.

The Sunni militant group has taken key cities in Iraq and Syria in the past week, routing regular forces in both countries with apparent ease.

“Obama has not done a damn thing so far to confront Daesh: doesn’t that show that there is no will in America to confront it?” Mehr quoted Soleimani as saying, using a derogatory Arabic term for Islamic State.

“How is it that America claims to be protecting the Iraqi government, when a few kilometres away in Ramadi killings and war crimes are taking place and they are doing nothing?” [Continue reading…]

Christian Science Monitor adds: The comments have created a “Twilight Zone”-esque conversation in which former US military officers – whose troops were killed during the height of the Iraq War by the roadside bombs that Quds force advisers helped Iraqi insurgents make – say that Soleimani may have a point.

“Quite frankly, Soleimani is correct,” says retired Col. Peter Mansoor, who served as the executive officer for Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq.

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Barack Obama still misunderestimates ISIS

J.M. Berger writes: The Obama administration’s misguided rhetoric on ISIL finally sped over the edge of a cliff over the last week. Officials stand now like Wile E. Coyote, still taking steps over thin air, bemused, in the moment before gravity takes hold.

With the fall of Ramadi, and continuing through the fall of Palmyra, officials up to and including President Barack Obama have sought to recast the Islamic State’s victories as “tactical” setbacks. Variations on this line were trotted out by the Pentagon and other officials first, and reiterated by the President in an interview published Thursday, in response to a question about the loss of Ramadi: “No, I don’t think we’re losing. There’s no doubt there was a tactical setback, although Ramadi had been vulnerable for a very long time, primarily because these are not Iraqi security forces that we have trained or reinforced.”

For those who do not speak Wonkese, making reference to an enemy’s “tactical” success is code for saying that the enemy is not “strategic.”

To be strategic, according to the dictionary definition, is to identify long-term goals and take action to accomplish them. In the Washington vernacular, the act of Being Strategic implies a near mystical quality of superior thinking possessed by some, and clearly lacking amongst the vulgarians of the world — heedless brutes such as ISIL. Tactics are short-term ploys, easy to dismiss. Strategy is for winners.

Perversely, the United States is itself sorely lacking in strategy, whether in its pedestrian or mythical definitions, with regard to the problem of ISIL. We have deployed a fairly limited collection of tactics, with an increasingly baseless confidence that these will “buy time” for improbable political resolutions in Iraq and Syria. Buying time is inherently tactical, or in this case, magical.

In contrast to the Mideast hopes and dreams we have tossed in a box labeled “strategy,” ISIL does in fact have a strategy, which it is pursuing aggressively. ISIL’s long-term goal is a transnational caliphate, and its strategy to achieve that has been clearly laid out if you take the time to understand it: [Continue reading…]

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With victories, ISIS dispels hope of a swift decline

The New York Times reports: Just last month, when Western and Iraqi officials talked about the Islamic State, it was mostly to list a series of setbacks to the terrorist group: defeated in the Syrian town of Kobani, battered by a heavy airstrike campaign, forced out of a growing list of towns and cities in Iraq.

But in just the past week, the Islamic State has turned that story around. Last weekend it solidified its hold on Iraq’s Anbar Province with a carefully choreographed assault on the regional capital, Ramadi. And on Wednesday, it stretched its territory in Syria into the historically and strategically important city of Palmyra.

Confounding declarations of the group’s decline, the twin offensives have become a sudden showcase for the group’s disciplined adherence to its core philosophies: always fighting on multiple fronts, wielding atrocities to scare off resistance and, especially, enforcing its caliphate in the Sunni heartland that straddles the Iraqi-Syrian border. In doing so, the Islamic State has not only survived setbacks, but also engineered new victories.

“Nobody here from the president on down is saying that this is something that we’ll just overcome immediately,” a senior State Department official said in a briefing with reporters on Wednesday, in which the ground rules demanded anonymity. “It’s an extremely serious situation.” [Continue reading…]

BBC News: More than 40,000 people were displaced from the key Iraqi town of Ramadi earlier this week, when it was captured by Islamic State fighters.

As the fighters attacked, the Iraqi army left the town instead of defending it and its people.

Now, as militants appear to be moving east from the city, pushing more displaced residents before them, Iraqis are asking why their army could not defend their town.

BBC News also reports: Islamic State militants have seized the last Syrian government-controlled border crossing between Syria and Iraq, a Syria monitoring group says.

Government forces withdrew from al-Tanf – known as al-Waleed in Iraq – crossing as IS advanced, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said.

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Senate to try again after bill on NSA collection of phone records is blocked

The New York Times reports: After vigorous debate and intense last-minute pressure by Republican leaders, the Senate on Saturday rejected legislation that would curb the federal government’s bulk collection of phone records.

With the death of that measure — passed overwhelmingly in the House this month — senators scrambled but failed to pass a short-term measure to keep the program from going dark when it expires June 1. The disarray in Congress appeared to significantly increase the chances that the government will lose systematic access to newly created calling records by Americans, at least temporarily, after June 1.

“This is a high-threat period,” said Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, who was stymied in his efforts to extend the program even for a few days by the junior senator for his state, Rand Paul.

A senior administration official said Saturday that the “wind-down process has begun” on the surveillance program, and that the administration did not file an application with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on Friday to continue collecting the data. The White House has long said that the administration would not seek to continue the program if the legal authorities expired. Aspects of the program could be reactivated as allowed under new legislation if Congress acts before the deadline. [Continue reading…]

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Islamist rebel leader says if regime is toppled, Syrian people can choose their form of government

Zahran Alloush, head of the Army of Islam, a Syrian rebel militia, in his first interview with U.S. news media spoke to McClatchy in Istanbul: The charismatic Alloush, who has a master’s degree in Shariah law from the Islamic University in Medina, Saudi Arabia, and spent two years in a regime jail on suspicion of “religious activity,” said that as leader of a major militia but also a religious scholar, he had to be part of the debate.

“I have the right to discuss. In any discussion, I would express my own views and others theirs,” he said.

In his interview with McClatchy, he adhered to the moderate line: “If we succeed in toppling the regime, we will leave it to the Syrian people to choose the form of state they want,” he said. “As for coexistence with minorities, this has been the situation in Syria for hundreds of years. We are not seeking to impose our power on minorities or to practice oppression against them.”

Another aide said that Alloush, to improve his image, was ready to dispense with the black and white Islamic flag and adopt the Syrian flag used by other rebel forces.

Whatever comes of the shift in his public stance, Alloush doesn’t expect to receive any aid from the U.S. government.

“Frankly speaking, the current administration is a hindrance to the Syrian people,” he said. “It prevents it from getting its freedom.”

He charged the U.S. with maintaining a “double standard” – ousting Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein under the pretext that he had chemical weapons while not punishing Assad even after he’d used chemical weapons. He also said the U.S. had blocked a shipment of anti-aircraft weapons that had been due to come from Libya.

“We have been in contact with them many times,” he said, “but we have reached the conclusion that the current administration doesn’t care about the Syrian people. They see atrocities happening in Syria and do nothing. They don’t allow us to defend ourselves.”

In fact, he said the Army of Islam had been in direct touch with Daniel Rubinstein, the Obama administration’s special envoy for Syria, an assertion the State Department confirmed.

Alloush was especially bitter about the U.S. government sending him a message in February that asked him to halt rocket attacks on Damascus. [Continue reading…]

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Anyone telling you ISIS is in decline isn’t paying attention

Hassan Hassan writes: Once again, in less than a year, Iraqi soldiers abandoned their positions en masse and fled in the face of advancing Islamic State forces. The fall of the city of Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar province, leaves no doubt about the jihadi group’s capabilities: Despite U.S. attempts to paint it as a gravely weakened organization, the Islamic State remains a powerful force that is on the offensive in several key fronts across Syria and Iraq.

Ramadi is far from the only front on which the Islamic State is advancing. The group last week launched an offensive, supported by multiple suicide operations, in the eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor against President Bashar al-Assad regime’s holdouts in the military air base. In the central city of Palmyra, it attacked a regime base near the ancient Roman ruins. It also recently clashed with Syrian rebels and the regime in the eastern countryside of Aleppo, the provinces of Homs and Hama, and the southern city of Quneitra, near the border with Israel.

Nor are the Islamic State’s gains in Iraq confined to Ramadi. The group has advanced deep into the Baiji oil refinery, the largest in the country. And it has since pushed on from Ramadi, attacking the nearby town of Khalidiya; if the group is successful, that might provide it with the territorial depth to advance on Baghdad.

The Islamic State’s recent advance did not take the world by surprise, as it did when the group captured Mosul and other areas across Iraq last year. This time, the United States said it conducted seven airstrikes in Ramadi, in an effort to prevent its fall, in the 24 hours before the city was lost. Local officials in Ramadi, meanwhile, had repeatedly warned that the city would be overrun if they did not receive urgent reinforcements. But the international and Iraqi support that arrived was simply insufficient to hold the city.

Therefore, the prevalent narrative that the Islamic State is destined to decline appears to be false. Rather than suffering from resource and manpower shortages, the group is only increasing its grip on the local populations in its strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa, Syria; it is also attracting a considerable number of recruits, especially among teenagers. [Continue reading…]

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Fall of Ramadi reflects failure of Iraq’s strategy against ISIS, analysts say

The Washington Post reports: As Islamic State militants repeatedly attacked ­Ramadi this year, police solicited cash from local families and businessmen to buy weapons, one officer recalled. The Iraqi government didn’t pay the police for months, he said.

“We begged and begged for more support from the government, but nothing,” said Col. Eissa al-Alwani, a senior police officer in the city.

The fall of Ramadi amounts to more than the loss of a major city in Iraq’s largest province, analysts say. It could undermine Sunni support for Iraq’s broader effort to drive back the Islamic State, vastly complicating the war effort.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Tuesday reiterated a government pledge to train and arm Sunni fighters to rout the extremists from the predominantly Sunni province. The government had announced a military campaign that envisioned taking back Anbar province in the coming months and then moving on for a climactic battle with the extremists in Mosul, Iraq’s ­second-largest city.

But the plan to form an effective Sunni fighting force was slow to take shape, hobbled by government concerns that some of the Sunnis might be close to the Islamic State, analysts say. [Continue reading…]

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Climate change poses risk to U.S. military bases, says Obama

Reuters: Rising seas, thawing permafrost and longer wildfires caused by warmer global temperatures threaten US military bases and will change the way the US armed services defend the country, President Obama is set to say on Wednesday.

In his commencement address at the United States Coast Guard academy in New London, Connecticut, the White House said Obama will underscore the risks to national security posed by climate change, one of his top priorities for action in his remaining 19 months in office.

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To recapture Ramadi from Islamic State, Iraq must use this formula

Hayder al-Khoei writes: The fall of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s largest province, is a major defeat for the Iraqi security forces. It follows a period in which a number of strategic advances have been made by Iraqi forces elsewhere in the north and east of the war-torn country. Dreams of an offensive to defeat Islamic State in Mosul this year will now be crushed. Iraq will instead focus its resources and attention on liberating Ramadi, which lies just 60 miles to the west of Baghdad.

The complex realities on the ground will also lead to difficult choices being made on all sides of the conflict. Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s approval to send in the Shi’ite-dominated Hashid Shaabi paramilitary forces to the Sunni-dominated Anbar region will worry many, but it comes at the request of local Sunnis who are desperate to defend their areas against Islamic State. The Anbar governor, provincial council and local tribes have publically asked Baghdad to send in these paramilitary forces to support Iraq’s security forces and Sunni tribesmen.

Unlike in Tikrit, several Sunni tribes in Ramadi have already been resisting Islamic State for years now. As 3,000 Shi’ite fighters have deployed to the west of Ramadi following Abadi’s green light, 4,000 Sunni tribesmen have now been deployed in the west to prevent further Islamic State advances in Anbar. Sunni-Shi’ite military cooperation — aside from the official security forces that are themselves mixed — will be a crucial element in this campaign. Sunni tribal fighters are also officially part of the Hashid Shaabi in Anbar, so this paramilitary force is no longer exclusively Shi’ite. [Continue reading…]

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Give up on Netanyahu, go to the United Nations

Henry Siegman writes: The greetings President Obama extended last week to Israel’s new government may have sounded conciliatory, but Mr. Obama no longer entertains any illusions about Israel’s leaders.

In the wake of last month’s election, the longtime peace activists and diplomats who have devoted much of their professional lives to achieving a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are more depressed and demoralized than ever before.

Well before Mr. Netanyahu declared during the recent election campaign that Palestinians would remain under Israeli military occupation as long as he is Israel’s prime minister, Mr. Obama understood that the Israeli government’s enthusiasm for continued peace talks with the Palestinians served no purpose other than to provide cover for Israel’s continued expansion of Jewish settlements and to preclude the emergence of anything resembling a Palestinian state in the West Bank.

Faced with this grim reality, some observers naïvely rooted for the center-left Zionist Union during the campaign. But the notion that a government led by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni might have produced a two-state accord with the Palestinians was also a delusion. An agreement based on the 1967 lines never appeared in the Zionist Union’s platform or crossed Mr. Herzog’s lips.

Indeed, it was clear to anyone familiar with the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that what little hope remained for a two-state solution would depend on the emergence of an Israeli government entirely under the control of Israel’s far right. Only a far-right government that so deeply offends American democratic sensibilities — as this one surely will — could provide the political opening necessary for a change in America’s Middle East policy. [Continue reading…]

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Nick Turse: One boy, one rifle, and one morning in Malakal

President Obama couldn’t have been more eloquent.  Addressing the Clinton Global Initiative, for instance, he said: “When a little boy is kidnapped, turned into a child soldier, forced to kill or be killed — that’s slavery.”  Denouncing Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA, and offering aid to Uganda and its neighbors in tracking Kony down, he said, “It’s part of our regional strategy to end the scourge that is the LRA and help realize a future where no African child is stolen from their family, and no girl is raped, and no boy is turned into a child soldier.”  In support of Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi, whom he has lauded as “not only a great champion of democracy but a fierce advocate against the use of forced labor and child soldiers,” he’skept her country on a list of nations the U.S. sanctions for using child soldiers in its military.  And his ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, has spoken movingly in condemnation of the use of child soldiers, which she’s termed a “scourge,” from Syria and the Central African Republic to South Sudan. 

Only one small problem, as Nick Turse, author of Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, points out in his latest reportage: the young, desperately divided nation of South Sudan is something of an American-sponsored creation, its military heavily supported by Washington, and so its child soldiers — and it has plenty of them — turn out not to be quite the same sort of scourge they are in Burma, Syria, or elsewhere.  Somehow, they’ve proved to be in the American “national interest” and so, shockingly enough, as Turse reveals today, were the subjects of a presidential “waiver” that sets aside Congress’s 2008 Child Soldiers Protection Act.  The willingness of a president to sideline a subject he’s otherwise denounced in no uncertain terms is worthy of a riddle that might go something like: when is slavery not slavery?  And the answer would be, when it gets in the way of U.S. policy.  With that in mind, let Turse take you deep into South Sudan, where children tote AK-47s and the sky is not cloudy all day.  Tom Engelhardt

The kids aren’t all right
Presidential waivers, child soldiers, and an American-made army in Africa
By Nick Turse

MALAKAL, South Sudan — I didn’t really think he was going to shoot me.  There was no anger in his eyes.  His finger may not have been anywhere near the trigger.  He didn’t draw a bead on me.  Still, he was a boy and he was holding an AK-47 and it was pointed in my direction. 

It was unnerving.

I don’t know how old he was.  I’d say 16, though maybe he was 18 or 19.  But there were a few soldiers nearby who looked even younger — no more than 15.

When I was their age, I wasn’t trusted to drive, vote, drink, get married, gamble in a casino, serve on a jury, rent a car, or buy a ticket to an R-rated movie.  It was mandatory for me to be in school.  The law decreed just how many hours I could work and prohibited my employment in jobs deemed too dangerous for kids — like operating mixing machines in bakeries or repairing elevators.  No one, I can say with some certainty, would have thought it a good idea to put an automatic weapon in my hands.  But someone thought it was acceptable for them.  A lot of someones actually.  Their government — the government of South Sudan — apparently thought so.  And so did mine, the government of the United States. 

[Read more…]

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Obama will will no longer give U.S. cops bayonets, weaponized aircraft, and grenade launchers

Quartz: The White House has announced that federal programs to pass certain surplus military equipment to local law enforcement agencies will come to an end.

The programs have garnered attention as public concern has grown about the blurred lines between policing and military operations, especially as relations between law enforcement officers and the communities — particularly minority communities — have soured, and images of police confronting protesters in heavy military gear have spread via the news media.

President Obama will announce today that police officers will not be able to obtain “[tracked] armored vehicles, weaponized aircraft and vehicles, bayonets, grenade launchers, and large-caliber firearms” through federal swap programs.

There is an exception: Law enforcement agencies that meet certain standards for training — including policies in place for better relations with their communities — will be able to obtain certain controlled surplus items. And that list includes lots of equipment that might still concern critics of law enforcement militarization, including armored personnel carriers, all-terrain vehicle, and drones. [Continue reading…]

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Shakeup in the Saudi royal family

Steve Coll writes: Last January, Salman bin Abdulaziz ascended to the throne of Saudi Arabia and installed his son Mohammed bin Salman as Minister of Defense. The Minister, who is thirty-four, holds an undergraduate degree in law from King Saud University. In late March, the Saudis launched a bombing campaign against neighboring Yemen, to contain a rebel force known as the Houthis, whom the Saudis see as allies of Iran, a rival. Bin Salman oversaw pilots flying advanced U.S.-made jets that, according to Human Rights Watch, dropped U.S.-made cluster bombs. Since the campaign began, Saudi-led strikes have killed hundreds of Yemeni civilians in schools and homes and at a camp for internal refugees. The Houthis have expanded the area under their control since the bombing started.

Bin Salman’s war is an inauspicious start to a new era for the royal family. The kingdom hasn’t experienced this kind of political shakeup since 1975, when Faisal bin Musaid, a failed student and an LSD dealer at the University of Colorado, assassinated King Faisal, his uncle. The King had been an economic modernizer, but, after the shock of his death, the Saudi throne passed laterally among aged half brothers, who ruled cautiously. It was unclear how power would ever pass to a younger generation. King Salman, who is seventy-nine, boldly resolved that question earlier this year by naming a nephew, Mohammed bin Nayef, who is fifty-five and runs the Interior Ministry, as his Crown Prince and successor, and installing bin Salman as second in line. This plan empowers Salman’s branch of the House of Saud, who are known as the Sudairis, after Salman’s mother.

The new princes are rising amid an unusual estrangement between Riyadh and Washington. Last week, at the last minute, the King declined to attend a conference at Camp David, where President Obama gathered potentates from Saudi Arabia and smaller Persian Gulf emirates to discuss security coöperation. (Salman sent his nephew and his son in his stead.) The snub seemed a hollow gesture of passive-aggressiveness, yet it signalled how Obama’s nuclear negotiations with Iran are unsettling the kingdom. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS leader, Abu Sayyaf, killed in Syria by U.S. special forces

Reuters reports: American special operations forces killed a senior Islamic State leader who helped direct the group’s oil, gas and financial operations during a raid in eastern Syria, U.S. officials said on Saturday.

The White House said President Barack Obama ordered the overnight raid that killed the man identified as Abu Sayyaf. U.S. officials said his wife, Umm Sayyaf, was captured in the raid and was being held in Iraq.

This was the first known U.S. special forces operation inside Syria apart from a failed secret effort to rescue a number of U.S. and other foreign hostages held by Islamic State in northeastern Syria last year.

White House National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said in a statement that U.S. personnel based out of Iraq conducted the operation in al-Amr in eastern Syria.

“During the course of the operation, Abu Sayyaf was killed when he engaged U.S. forces,” Meehan said.

“The president authorized this operation upon the unanimous recommendation of his national security team and as soon as we had developed sufficient intelligence and were confident the mission could be carried out successfully and consistent with the requirements for undertaking such operations,” Meehan said.

Meehan said the operation was conducted “with the full consent of Iraqi authorities” and “consistent with domestic and international law.”

The White House said the U.S. did not inform Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government in advance of the raid, or coordinate with Damascus. Shortly before the U.S. announcement, Syrian state television said the Syrian army killed an Islamic State leader responsible for oil-related affairs, identifying him as Abu al-Taym al-Saudi. [Continue reading…]

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Interview with Iranian foreign minister: ‘We will have differences with U.S. no matter what’

Der Spiegel reports: Mohammad Javad Zarif, 55, is relaxed and cheerful during an interview that takes place in his office in Tehran, telling jokes in perfect English. He studied political science in the United States before becoming Tehran’s ambassador to the United Nations. Since 2013, he has served as foreign minister under President Hassan Rouhani. He recently negotiated the preliminary agreement in the country’s nuclear dispute with the international community. He is well-liked by his Western negotiating partners and a star in his home country, where his autobiography is a best-seller. Some see a future president in the making, but he smiles and shrugs off the suggestion. “Domestic policy is not for me,” he says.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Minister, you literally had people dancing in the streets when you announced on April 2 that a solution to the nuclear conflict was in sight. At the same time, neither side was able to agree on a joint fact sheet. Did people party prematurely?

Zarif: It is the right of the people to be happy and it is the responsibility of the government to make people happy. What happened in Lausanne was an important milestone, but it wasn’t a deal. I believe that a deal is not only possible, but probable. We reached a conceptual understanding on a number of parameters for the resolution. We need to put that in writing in terms of an agreement, and that’s exactly what my colleagues are doing now in Vienna.

SPIEGEL: The United States released its fact sheet of the key points of the negotiations in order to show that it didn’t make major concessions. We assume you weren’t thrilled about this, right?

Zarif: I do not believe that the practice of producing fact sheets is a very useful one. The world has gone through a significant change. You cannot pick and choose your audience anymore. In the past, you could present your version of reality, your narrative to your audience, and the other side could have presented their narrative to their audience. But today in the age of the Internet and social media, narratives become global — and that’s where the problem comes. So you need to be able to present the final, complete package. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. may raise Arab states to ‘major’ ally status

Politico: The White House is open to the possibility of declaring all of the Arab states attending a Camp David summit “major non-NATO allies,” a designation that makes it easier for the United States to provide financial and military aid, a top U.S. official said Thursday.

The designation stops short of being a mutual defense pact, but a joint statement released later in the day includes a promise from the United States “to use all elements of power to secure our core interests in the Gulf region, and to deter and confront external aggression against our allies and partners.”

“I am reaffirming our ironclad commitment to the security of our Gulf partners,” Obama told reporters at a news conference at the conclusion of the summit.

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Iran these days is a greater focus of Arab ire and disquiet than Israel

From Dubai, Roger Cohen writes: When Amr Moussa, the former secretary general of the Arab League, spoke here of the Arab world’s humiliation by three non-Arab states — Iran, Israel and Turkey — and the way they had, through their “hegemony,” turned Arabs into a “laughingstock,” I asked him what exactly he meant.

His response focused on Iran. This in itself was interesting. Statements from Tehran about Iran calling the shots in several Arab capitals — including Damascus, Baghdad and Sana — had “enraged many of us,” he said, leaving Arabs humiliated that any power “would dare say that.”

As this remark suggests, Iran these days is a greater focus of Arab ire and disquiet than Israel, a country with which many Arab states have aligned but unsayable interests.

Cut to Camp David and President Obama’s attempt to reassure Persian Gulf leaders that the United States can, in Secretary of State John Kerry’s words, “do two things at the same time” — that is, conclude a nuclear deal with Shiite Iran and honor its alliances with the Sunni monarchies, whose oil is now of less strategic importance to an America in the midst of an oil boom.

The walk-and-chew-gum American argument is a tough sell because Arab honor and Arab humiliation are in play. That’s why King Salman of Saudi Arabia stayed away from Camp David. That’s why the Saudis started a bombing campaign in Yemen: to stop the Houthis, portrayed in Riyadh as pure Iranian proxies. That’s why much of what you hear these days in Dubai (where many Iranians live and trade) is talk of Obama’s betrayal of the Arabs through infatuation with Iran. [Continue reading…]

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12 years later, a mystery of chemical exposure in Iraq clears slightly

C.J. Chivers reports: The toxic vapors acted quickly against the Second Platoon of the 811th Ordnance Company, whose soldiers were moving abandoned barrels out of an Iraqi Republican Guard warehouse in 2003. The building, one soldier said, was littered with dead birds.

As the soldiers pushed the barrels over and began rolling them, some of the contents leaked, they said, filling the air with a bitter, penetrating smell. Soon, many were dizzy and suffering from running noses and tearing eyes. A few were vomiting, disoriented, tingling or numb.

After the soldiers staggered outside for air, multiple detection tests indicated the presence of nerve agent. Others suggested blister agent, too. The results seemed to confirm the victims’ fear that they had stumbled upon unused stocks of Iraq’s chemical weapons.

From Camp Taji, where the barrels had been found, more than 20 exposed soldiers were evacuated in helicopters to a military hospital in Balad, where they were met by soldiers wearing gas masks and ordered to undress before being allowed inside for medical care.

“They drew a box in the sand and had armed guards and were like: ‘Do not get out of that box. Do not get out of that box,’ ” said Nathan Willie, a private first class at the time. “I was kind of freaked out.”

Since last fall, the United States military has acknowledged that American soldiers found thousands of abandoned chemical weapons in Iraq, and that hundreds of troops notified the military medical system that they believed they had been exposed to them. The military acknowledged the exposures after years of secrecy — and of denying medical tracking and official recognition to victims — only after an investigation by The New York Times.

Even then, the affliction of the 811th Ordnance Company had quietly remained one of the unsolved mysteries of the Iraq war, and a parable of what several of the victims describe as the corrosive effects of the government’s secrecy on troop welfare and public trust. [Continue reading…]

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