FP's Situation Report: Maliki to step down; Administration's Sinjar Surprise; Kerry forced onto commercial flight; Sinclair's PR firm up for an award; Kirby won't do happy dance; and a bit more.
By Gordon Lubold
Maliki to step down in Iraq. For weeks, the Obama administration had been not-so-quietly pushing for a coalition government in Iraq - pinning efforts to reverse the worsening security situation there on that change - and that meant Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would have to go. After a brief period in which it looked as if Maliki could become the new Bashar al-Assad, the recalcitrant Syrian president who refuses to leave office, Maliki saw the writing on the Iraqi wall and agreed to step down. While a positive sign for Iraq, it remains unclear how a new government will translate to security anytime soon. FP's Yochi Dreazen on Maliki's decision: "...Just four days after deploying loyalist troops around Baghdad and signaling that he was prepared to use force to hold onto his premiership, Maliki used an unscheduled appearance on Iraqi state-run television Thursday to announce that he was resigning from the post and handing the reins of power to Haider al-Abadi, the moderate Shiite whom Iraq's president has picked to form a new government. Abadi has 26 days to do so, and officials from the United States and across the Middle East will be watching closely to see if the new premier gives key security posts to Sunni leaders as part of a broader outreach effort to the minority group."
Maliki, on Iraq's state-run television: "I announce before you today, to ease the movement of the political process and the formation of the new government, the withdrawal of my candidacy in favor of brother Dr. Haider al-Abadi." More here.
The top Iraqi cleric backs new premier and calls for unity, Reuters this hour, here.
Meantime, the Sinjar Surprise: why were the estimates of how many Iraqis were stranded on that mountain so off? FP's Kate Brannen and Lubold: "...But then came a surprise: After inserting a small military reconnaissance team atop the mountain, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said late Wednesday that the situation was no longer as bad as anyone thought. There are now only about 5,000 civilians on the mountain, and they are in "better condition than previously believed," according to Hagel's statement. For roughly 2,000 of those civilians, mostly from the minority Yazidi religious sect, Mount Sinjar is home and they do not intend to leave. Now it seems the dire situation has improved and that focus is shifting to refugee camps in Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan.
"The question now becomes how the Pentagon's expansive, weeklong surveillance mission over northern Iraq -- as many as 60 manned and unmanned air 'sorties' per day -- apparently gave the United States government highly inaccurate information.
Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby: "It's very difficult to do nose counts from the air.... I mean, it's just an imperfect science."
Dave Deptula, the former ISR chief for the Air Force: "It's pretty straightforward: You survey the region that you're interested in over a period of time, then you count the number of people who are there... It's not rocket science." Read the rest of Brannen and Lubold's story, here.
And the crisis atop Sinjar so seemed to animate the Obama Administration's efforts there over the last week - now that the crisis is over, what now? Administration officials say they will suspend humanitarian operations for now - launching them once again as needed - and will continue airstrikes as needed. But it remains unclear just how far the administration wants to go in Iraq. As it welcomes a new prime minister, most experts believe the country's security - and that of the region - is still a problem the U.S. can't ignore.
U.S. intelligence officials say the Islamic State is working to establish cells outside of Iraq and Syria. The WaPo's Greg Miller: "The radical Islamist State terrorist group has pushed to establish cells outside Iraq and Syria, including in Europe, as it expands its campaign beyond the Middle East, U.S. intelligence officials said Thursday. The group's efforts to position operatives in Western countries is considered evidence of the al-Qaeda offshoot's determination to mount terrorist plots against the United States and its allies.
"...the officials' characterization of the group represents the clearest indication to date that U.S. counterterrorism analysts consider it a direct and growing threat to the country." More here.
More on Iraq below.
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"No, I don't think I will," Pentagon Press Secretary Kirby, to reporters yesterday, after he was asked jokingly if he would demonstrate a "happy dance" after saying no one in the Pentagon was dancing or giving each other high-fives because there were fewer refugees on Mount Sinjar. "There's no happy dances here because we think the situation is better there on the mountain. We understand that there continues to be human suffering in Iraq, and we continue to assess and monitor that," he said. Full DoD transcript of yesterday's press briefing on Iraq, India, Asia and a couple other things, here.
Situation Report corrects - Yesterday we included a line from Jim Dubik, the retired Army three-star, in a story about the Obama administration's pledge to keep combat troops out of Iraq. In our haste, we said Dubik used to command troops in Mosul. Of course he didn't. He was the head of the training command in Baghdad (though once, years ago, we travelled with him to Mosul, but that doesn't count). Our apologies for incorrectly identifying his job at the time. That story from yesterday, here.
American weapons for Israel come with strings attached. An analysis in Haaretz with this subhed: "The move to review arms exports to Israel makes it clear that the Americans support Israel's right of self-defense, but not at any price." Read that here.
Meantime, that Russian convoy is being checked, and vehicles amass at the border. Reuters this morning: "Dozens of heavy Russian military vehicles massed on Friday near the border with Ukraine, while Ukrainian border guards crossed the frontier to inspect a huge Russian aid convoy. Kiev has said the humanitarian aid might be used as cover for a Russian military intervention, and has insisted that its forces check the convoy before it moves across the border. Moscow has denied any ulterior motives, but has allowed Ukrainian border guards to enter Russia and look at the caravan of trucks in an area opposite the frontier town of Izvaryne." More here.
An Air Force jet fails, and John Kerry picks up some frequent flyer miles, finally. The WaPo's Anne Gearan: Secretary of State John F. Kerry flew around the world over the past week, zipping hither and yon for nine days on his Air Force jet till the plane broke down Thursday. Kerry was supposed to fly home to Washington from Hawaii early in the morning but instead took a commercial United Airlines flight hours later. The State Department official who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record, said an electrical problem with the Air Force Boeing 757 forced it to remain on the ground at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii." Kerry has flown 519,136 miles to 51 countries logging 230 travel days, according to the NYT. Kerry, to staffers, upon learning he'd need to fly home commercially: "Finally, some frequent-flier miles." More here.
The PR firm that represented Jeffrey Sinclair, a.k.a. Poppa Panda Sexy Pants, the disgraced Army one-star, puts itself up for an award. The WaPo's Dan Lamothe: "Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair found himself under the bright lights of the national media after he was charged by Army authorities with forcible sodomy, wrongful sexual conduct and other crimes in 2012... Five months later, a public relations firm that assisted the general in the case is in contention for a prestigious award. MWW, of East Rutherford, N.J., nominated itself in the crisis management category in the Platinum PR Awards, an MWW official confirmed. Doing so highlights their work in a case that confounded some legal experts who believe Sinclair got off lightly." More here.
Rob Richards, the Marine scout sniper who was in the controversial "urination video" and the center of that controversy, was found dead in his home in North Carolina. Marine Corps Times' Gina Harkins, here.
Shots fired at Imran Khan during protests in Pakistan, Reuters this morning, here.
Pakistani protest dusts off concerns about the role of the Pakistani military. The WSJ's Saeed Shah in Islamabad: "Thousands of protesters led by Pakistani cricketer-turned- politician Imran Khan set out on Thursday to march on Islamabad, aiming to bring down a government they accuse of stealing last year's election. The looming confrontation has renewed the political role of the military, casting some doubt on the strength of democratic institutions in a nuclear-armed nation that has seen several coups and has been ruled by the army for half its history.
"Mr. Khan's so-called Freedom March began on Thursday afternoon from the eastern city of Lahore, the provincial capital of Punjab and the power base for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The march is being carried out in cars and buses. Mr. Khan's following was bolstered by cleric Tahir ul Qadri, who is leading thousands in a separate such march on the road from Lahore to Islamabad." Read the rest here.
Cybersecurity remains a gray area for NATO. U.S. News & World Report's Tom Risen reports, here.
Amid Ferguson criticism, the Pentagon denies "militarizing" domestic police. USNews& Report's Paul Shinkman, here.
A Congressman wants to curb military surplus program. AP's Matthew Daly this morning: "Images of police outfitted in paramilitary gear clashing with protesters in suburban St. Louis after the weekend shooting death of unarmed black teenager is giving new impetus to efforts to rein in a Pentagon program that provides free machine guns and other surplus military equipment to local law enforcement agencies. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., says he plans to introduce legislation when Congress returns in September to curb what he describes as an increasing militarization of police agencies across the country." More here.
And more on Iraq...
Jim Jones, writing in the WSJ, about coulda shoulda woulda in Iraq - and what the U.S., Iraq and the international community must do now. Jones: "...Washington bears some blame for not taking timely action that could have limited this summer's chaos. The Obama administration could have maintained a limited military training presence in Iraq after 2011; could have acted in Syria last year when the chemical weapons "red line" was crossed; and could have insisted that Mr. Maliki arm the Kurds. But what matters more is what the U.S. can do now.
Then Jones, after prescribing specific recommendations, writes: "The crisis in Iraq is several orders of magnitude worse than those we faced in 1991 or at any time since the 2003 invasion. The U.S.-and our allies in Europe and the Middle East-must help Prime Minister-designate Abadi save Iraq. The consequences of failure are too great to opt out. For the Iraqi people who hope for peace, for all the U.S. service personnel who made such heroic sacrifices in Iraq over the past 23 years, and for U.S. national security, this is the right thing to do." More here.
The WaPo's editors on the editorial page (their BLUF): "If the Islamic State and the Assad regime can be defeated or at least placed on the defensive, political solutions that address the Sunni-Shiite conflict in Iraq and Syria, Kurdish aspirations for self-determination and the protection of minority groups will come more easily. The idea that Iraqis will somehow solve these problems independently of Syria and with minimal U.S. support is a convenient but dangerous illusion." More here.
British spy Gertrude Bell's legacy in Iraq is unfulfilled. "Miss Bell" is credited with creating modern Iraq after World War I. But her vision has yet to be realized. The NYT's Tim Arango: "...Today, though, her legacy, which has always been fragile, is at risk of being undone amid the renewed sectarian violence that has already seen Sunni militants effectively erase the border she drew between Iraq and Syria and raised the possibility of Iraq fracturing into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish territories. Seen through the experience of Iraq's tumultuous recent past, the decisions made by Miss Bell, as she is still affectionately referred to by Iraqis, and others working for the British and French to reorder the Middle East after the Ottoman Empire collapsed nearly a century ago, hold cautionary lessons for those seeking to bring stability or seek advantage in the region now." More here.