TIME

Iraqi PM Rejects Calls to Form Unity Government

BAGHDAD (AP) — A defiant Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki rejected calls Wednesday for an interim “national salvation government” intended to undermine the Sunni insurgency by presenting a unified front among Iraq’s three main groups, calling it a “coup against the constitution.”

Al-Maliki’s televised address to the nation was his first public statement since President Barack Obama challenged him last week to create a more inclusive government or risk his country descending into sectarian civil war.

U.S. officials believe the leadership in Baghdad should seek to draw Sunni support away from the militants led by an al-Qaida breakaway group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which has seized a chunk of northwestern Iraq and seeks to carve out a purist Islamic enclave across both sides of the country’s border with Syria. The insurgency has drawn support from disaffected Iraqi Sunnis who are angry over perceived mistreatment and random detentions by the Shiite-led government.

The crisis has drawn the U.S. back to Iraq, although on a much smaller scale, nearly three years after the Americans withdrew from the country. Dozens of newly arrived U.S. military advisers and special operations forces began assessing the Iraqi forces in an effort to strengthen Baghdad’s ability to confront the insurgency.

In the face of militant advances that have virtually erased Iraq’s western border with Syria and captured territory on the frontier with Jordan, al-Maliki’s focus has been the defense of Baghdad, a majority Shiite city of 7 million fraught with growing tension. The city’s Shiites fear they could be massacred and the revered al-Kazimiyah shrine destroyed if Islamic State fighters capture Baghdad. Sunni residents also fear the extremists, as well as Shiite militiamen in the city, who they worry could turn against them.

The militants have vowed to march to Baghdad and the holy Shiite cities of Najaf and Karbala, a threat that prompted the nation’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to issue an urgent call to arms that has resonated with young Shiite men.

Several politicians, including Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who has been named as a possible contender to replace al-Maliki, have called on him to step down and form an interim government that could provide leadership until a more permanent solution can be found.

Al-Maliki, however, insisted the political process must be allowed to proceed following recent national elections in which his bloc won the largest share of parliament seats.

“The call to form a national salvation government represents a coup against the constitution and the political process,” he said. He added that “rebels against the constitution” — a thinly veiled reference to Sunni rivals — posed a more serious danger to Iraq than the militants.

He called on “political forces” to close ranks in the face of the growing threat by insurgents, but took no concrete steps to meet U.S. demands for greater inclusion of minority Sunnis.

“We desperately need to take a comprehensive national stand to defeat terrorism, which is seeking to destroy our gains of democracy and freedom, set our differences aside and join efforts,” said al-Maliki. “The danger facing Iraq requires all political groups to reconcile on the basis and principles of our constitutional democracy.”

“We, despite the cruelty of the battle against terrorism, will remain loyal and faithful to the will and choices of the Iraqi people in bolstering their democratic experiment,” he said.

Al-Maliki’s coalition, the State of the Law, won the 92 seats of the 328-member parliament in the election. In office since 2006, al-Maliki needs the support of a simple majority to hold on to the job for another four-year term. The legislature is expected to meet before the end of the month, when it will elect a speaker. It has 30 days to elect a new president, who in turn will select the leader of the majority bloc in parliament to form the next government.

In fighting Wednesday, Sunni militants launched a dawn raid on a key Iraqi oil refinery they have been trying to take for days, but security forces fought them back, said Col. Ali al-Quraishi, the commander of the Iraqi forces on the scene.

A mortar shell also smashed into a house in Jalula, northeast of Baghdad, killing a woman and her two children. That town in the turbulent Diyala province is under the control of Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga.

Also Wednesday, a report by Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency said an attack near Iran’s western border with Iraq has killed three Iranian border guards. They were killed Tuesday night while patrolling along the border in western Kermanshah province. A border outpost commander was among the three killed, Fars quoted a local security official, Shahriar Heidari, as saying.

Heidari said an unspecified “terrorist group” was behind the attack but provided no details.

Al-Maliki, who has no military background but gets the final say on major battlefield decisions, has looked to hundreds of thousands of Shiite volunteers who joined the security forces as the best hope to repel the Islamic State’s offensive.

While giving the conflict a sectarian slant — the overwhelming majority are Shiites — the volunteers have also been a logistical headache as the army tries to clothe, feed and arm them. Furthermore, their inexperience means they will not be combat ready for weeks, even months.

Still, some were sent straight to battle, with disastrous consequences.

New details about the fight for Tal Afar — the first attempt to retake a major city from the insurgents — underscore the challenges facing the Iraqi security forces.

Dozens of young volunteers disembarked last week at an airstrip near the isolated northern city and headed straight to battle, led by an army unit. The volunteers and the accompanying troops initially staved off advances by the militants, but were soon beaten back, according to military officials.

They took refuge in the airstrip, but the militants shelled the facility so heavily the army unit pulled out, leaving 150 panicking volunteers to fend for themselves, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

The ill-fated expedition — at least 30 volunteers and troops were killed and the rest of the recruits remain stranded at the airstrip — does not bode well for al-Maliki’s declared plan to make them the backbone of Iraq’s future army.

___

Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Sinan Salaheddin contributed to this report.

 

TIME Iraq

Syria and Iran Step Up Involvement in Iraq Conflict

Iraqi Shiite men hold up their weapons during a training session in the shrine city of Karbala, in central Iraq, on June 25, 2014 after they volunteered to protect the Shiite holy sites in central and south Iraq in case of an attack by Sunni militants led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Iraqi Shiite men hold up their weapons during a training session in the shrine city of Karbala, in central Iraq, on June 25, 2014 after they volunteered to protect the Shiite holy sites in central and south Iraq in case of an attack by Sunni militants led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Mohammed Sawaf—AFP/Getty Images

The conflagration in Iraq was expanding beyond its borders Tuesday, as Syrian warplanes bombed Iraq and Iran reportedly sent drones

The sectarian conflict in Iraq threatened to intensify beyond its borders Tuesday, as Syrian Army warplanes bombed Sunni strongholds in western Iraq and Iran reportedly began sending in military equipment and flying unarmed surveillance drones over the country.

The news comes as the first U.S. Special Forces arrived in Baghdad Tuesday, with 40 troops assigned to Iraq as part of a group of 300 military advisers President Obama said he would deploy to the country.

According to local officials in Anbar province, at least 57 Iraqi civilians were killed and more than 120 wounded on Tuesday after the Syrian regime bombed the area, CNN reports. Local officials said the planes bore the Syrian flag and attacked markets and fuel stations in the region.

The Washington Post reported that the Syrian government bombed Sunni militant targets in Iraq, while initial Iraq media reports said the attacks near Iraq’s western border were carried out by U.S. drones.

The attack marks the first serious involvement in the current Iraq crisis by President Bashar Assad’s regime. The Syrian air force has been accused of widespread bombings of civilians within the nation’s borders.

“We’re aware of reports that the Syrian government has taken strikes against targets in Iraq,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday. “We have no reason to dispute those reports. But for confirmation or additional details about what those strikes may have included, I’d refer you to the government in Iraq.”

Citing anonymous military officials, the New York Times reports that Iran has been sending two daily flights of 70 tons of military equipment and supplies to Iraq, in addition to launching a small fleet of drones over the country. Both Iran and the U.S. oppose the Sunni militia waging an offensive in Iraq.

The Pentagon said late Tuesday that it is scheduling 30 to 35 surveillance flights over Iraq each day. About 90 troops have been assigned to Baghdad’s joint operations center.

Sunni militants allied with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) surrounded one of Iraq’s largest air bases on three sides Wednesday and were mounting a major attack after seizing several oilfields in the north of the country, Reuters reports.

Meanwhile, a diplomatic solution to the conflict seems unlikely in the short term, with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refusing Wednesday to form a broad-based government to placate the Sunni insurgency, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Maliki met with Secretary of State John Kerry Tuesday in Baghdad, while Obama administration officials have voiced desires to see fresh leadership in Iraq.

TIME Morning Must Reads

Morning Must Reads: June 25

Capitol
The early morning sun rises behind the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC. Mark Wilson—Getty Images

In the news: Iraqi premier refuses calls to form broader government; U.S. sanctions on Russia could be delayed; Sen. Thad Cochran wins Mississippi primary; Rep. Charlie Rangel in the lead

  • “Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refused Wednesday to bend to international appeals to form a more broad-based government to curb the country’s swelling Sunni Muslim insurgency.” [WSJ]
    • “Iran is flying unarmed surveillance drones over Iraq from an airfield in Baghdad and is secretly supplying Iraq with tons of military equipment, supplies and other assistance, American officials said. Tehran has also deployed a unit there to intercept communications…” [NYT]
  • “Sanctions aimed at key economic sectors in Russia because of its threatening moves in Ukraine might be delayed because of positive signals from Russian President Vladimir Putin…” [AP]
  • “Sen. Thad Cochran narrowly won Mississippi’s Republican primary election Tuesday, prevailing over a Tea Party challenger in a hard-fought runoff vote that was seen as a proxy for the intramural fight between the GOP establishment and conservative insurgents.” [TIME]
    • “After trailing the lesser known McDaniel in the June 3 primary, Cochran, in three weeks time, managed to: a) grow the electorate in his favor by, among other things, recruiting African Americans to his cause b) run successfully on a message of keeping his seniority in Washington and c) win despite, quite clearly, being the less naturally skilled candidate on the stump.” [WashPost]
  • “New York Democratic Rep. Charlie Rangel held a slim lead in a primary race against state Sen. Adriano Espaillat early Wednesday, as the longtime incumbent looked for a victory that would give him what he’s said will be one last term in Congress.” [TIME]
  • Boehner Planning House Lawsuit Against Obama Executive Actions [Roll Call]
  • “The Obama administration cleared the way for the first exports of unrefined American oil in nearly four decades, allowing energy companies to start chipping away at the longtime ban on selling U.S. oil abroad.” [WSJ]
TIME Iraq

In Iraq, Former Militia Program Eyed for New Fight

Iraq Awakening Councils
In this Jan. 16, 2013, file photo, Sahwa members, a group of Sunni Arabs who joined forces with the U.S. military to fight al-Qaida at the height of Iraq's insurgency, escort the coffin of Ifan Saadoun al-Issawi, during his funeral in Fallujah, Iraq. Hadi Mizban—AP

U.S. officials say they hope Sunnis will be similarly stirred to fight back against the new insurgency

(BAGHDAD) — They were known as the Sahwa, or the Awakening Councils — Sunni militiamen who took extraordinary risks to side with U.S. troops in the fight against al-Qaeda during the Iraq War. Once heralded as a pivotal step in the defeat of the bloody insurgency, the Sahwa later were pushed aside by Iraq’s Shiite-led government, starved of political support and money needed to remain a viable security force.

Now, the Obama administration is looking at the Sahwa, which still exist in smaller form, as a model for how to unite Sunni fighters against the rampant Islamic State of Iraq and Syria that has swept across most of the nation’s north. Also known as the Sons of Iraq — “sahwa” is Arabic for “awakening” — U.S. officials say they hope Sunnis will be similarly stirred to fight back against the new insurgency.

As many as 3,000 core ISIS fighters, many of them foreign, are believed to be in Iraq. But U.S. intelligence officials fear twice that many Iraqi Sunnis are vulnerable to being lured into the violence — pushing the country into an outright civil war. That has prompted the White House, State Department and CIA to look for incentives to keep as many disgruntled Sunnis as possible from joining the fight.

Being Sahwa can be dangerous. One Sunni militiaman, Abu Ahmed, said he began receiving text messages from Iraqi insurgent groups four months ago, threatening him if he remained a Sahwa member. He said he reported the threats to security forces, “but nobody cared.”

“The security officials told me that the safety of my family is my own responsibility, not theirs,” said Abu Ahmed, a father of five in Muqdadiyha, a Sunni enclave outside Baghdad. Like many Iraqis, he would only identify himself by his nickname out of fear for his family’s safety. “It seems that both the government and the insurgents hate Sahwa.”

The Obama administration knows it cannot recreate the original Sahwa security movement, which was supported and bolstered by American troops in Sunni-dominated areas of western and northern Iraq. Over a three-year period after the Sahwa campaign began in late 2006, the U.S. military paid them at least $370 million.

The Obama administration has no immediate plans to arm or fund the Sunni security militias, and there are too few American personnel in Iraq now to try to duplicate the original joint force.

It’s thought likely that Iraq’s Sunni neighbors — notably Jordan and Saudi Arabia — will use their cross-border tribal networks to bolster the security militias with financing or weapons, but it’s not clear whether Washington would even support that privately. The U.S. probably would want to vet the tribes before they received any money or arms, even from other nations, to ensure that the aid does not get passed along to ISIS or other extremist groups.

A similar process in Syria has delayed assistance to the frustrated moderate Sunni rebels in their three-year civil war to eject President Bashar Assad, whose Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shiism.

Secretary of State John Kerry was in the Mideast this week to push Iraq toward creating a more inclusive government that equally empowers Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, and potentially replaces Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, as the best option to quell ISIL.

“The problem is, there are far too many tribes sitting on the sidelines,” said retired Army Col. Peter Mansoor, who helped build the original Sahwa program and is now a professor at Ohio State University. “But if the Iraqi government can re-form the alliance with the tribes, and present itself to the Arab Sunnis as a government they can support, then I think the portion of ISIS that’s composed of foreign jihadists could be defeated in short order.”

Kerry is also meeting with diplomats from Saudi Arabia and Jordan to discuss Iraq, and the issue of trying to keep Sunni fighters out of the insurgency will be high on their agenda, officials said. Requests by The Associated Press for comment from Saudi and Jordanian diplomats and intelligence officials were either refused or not immediately granted.

“We’re hearing from Sunni leaders across the board that they really want to do something about ISIS. They’re figuring out how to do it,” said one senior State Department official who, like more than a half-dozen other U.S. officials interviewed, spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue by name.

He said many of the Sunni tribes first want to unseat al-Maliki.

Al-Maliki for years promised American officials he would hire the Sahwa to diversify the overwhelmingly Shiite government security forces and ensure the Sunni militiamen would continue to be paid once the U.S. troops left the country. But the vast majority of an estimated 90,000 Sahwa never got government jobs and, if they are paid by local authorities in the areas they protect, they receive less than a few hundred dollars each month.

Betrayed by al-Maliki’s broken promises, and threatened by insurgents, many Sahwa now feel that joining forces with extremists is a safer bet. Abu Ahmed is among them, and said he recently began fighting with a different Sunni extremist group that calls itself the Islamic Army.

“They are more moderate than ISIS, and they do not kill Shiites or other people randomly, and they are able to protect my family from ISIS,” Abu Ahmed said. He added, bitterly, “We have sacrificed a lot and risked our lives in fighting al-Qaeda, and our reward from al-Maliki was less money.”

U.S. officials believe a significant number of Sunni tribal fighters are now fighting alongside ISIS, including the Sahwa and an estimated 1,000 former Baathists and others loyal to the late President Saddam Hussein. There are still large numbers of Sunni fighters who have not sided with ISIS, the officials said, but there is a fear they might join in if Iranian-backed Shiite militias begin playing a prominent role in the fighting. That would mirror the kind of sectarian bloodshed that brought Iraq to the brink of civil war at the time the Sahwa were created.

The U.S. hopes the majority of Sahwa and other disgruntled Sunnis will resist allying with ISIS simply because they reject extremism and an insurgency that, over the years, has killed thousands of civilians and bystanders in random attacks. And at least some Sunnis agree.

“I have no intention to join the insurgents because they do nothing but kill people,” said Abu Humam, who joined a Sahwa militia near Ramadi in 2007 and suffered severe leg wounds while fighting al-Qaeda a year later. But he, too, voiced anger at al-Maliki, whom he accused of neglecting the Sahwa and making them easy targets for insurgents.

“Hundreds of Sahwa fighters have given up during the past months,” Abu Humam said. “Either they have stayed home or joined insurgent groups.”

___

Associated Press writers Julie Pace and Ken Dilanian in Washington contributed to this report.

TIME Iraq

The First U.S. Special Forces Have Arrived in Baghdad

Members of the Iraqi security forces take their positions during an intensive security deployment west of Baghdad, June 24, 2014.
Members of the Iraqi security forces take their positions during an intensive security deployment west of Baghdad, June 24, 2014. Ahmed Saad—Reuters

They are there to consult and not engage in combat, although Washington has not ruled out air strikes

A number of U.S. military advisers landed in Baghdad on Tuesday to establish a strategic base in the city, from which they will conduct intelligence evaluations of the crisis in northern Iraq.

They are the first of 300 Special Forces troops deployed by President Barack Obama to aid the Iraqi army in its defense against the Sunni militant forces quickly encroaching southward toward the capital.

Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said that approximately 90 troops had landed in Iraq, to be followed by 50 more from within the Central Command region. “These teams will assess the cohesiveness and readiness of Iraqi security forces, higher headquarters in Baghdad, and examine the most effective and efficient way to introduce follow-on advisers,” he said.

The deployment accompanies an effort by Washington to fortify intelligence operations in the country, which for now may be the extent of direct U.S. engagement in the ongoing conflict. The President and other Administration officials have stressed that the troops stationing themselves in Baghdad this week are there in a strictly consultative capacity — at least for the time being.

“American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq, but we will help Iraqis as they take the fight to terrorists who threaten the Iraqi people, the region and American interests as well,” Obama said in a press conference last week.

The Commander in Chief’s reluctance to send troops to the front lines has prompted criticism of his approach to foreign policy, including a controversial essay in the Wall Street Journal by former Vice President Dick Cheney, who wrote that Obama’s military inaction in Iraq since withdrawing troops in 2011 has enabled “American defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.”

According to a New York Times poll published on Monday, Americans are split on whether air strikes are prudent, though a majority oppose direct combat by ground troops.

Nearly 70% of those surveyed, however, felt that the President had been vague in explaining his Administration’s goals in Iraq. His next move is likewise uncertain, although he maintains that air strikes are not entirely out of the question.

“Going forward, we will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action if and when we determine the situation on the ground requires it,” Obama said.

TIME Iraq

Sorry, Jihadis, but You Won’t Be Able to Buy ISIS T-Shirts on Facebook

A fighter of the ISIL holds a flag and a weapon on a street in Mosul
A fighter of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) holds an ISIS flag and a weapon on a street in the city of Mosul, Iraq, on June 23, 2014 Reuters

T-shirts for terrorists get a ton of dislikes

Facebook has blocked the attempted sale of ISIS hoodies, T-shirts and toy figurines on the social network.

The shirts include the Sunni militant group’s logo and slogans like “We Are All ISIS” and “Fight for Freedom, Until the Last Drop of Blood,” and cost around $10.

The group is currently embroiled in all-out insurgency in Iraq, where it has seized several key areas.

Facebook was swift to respond. “Where hateful content is posted and reported, Facebook removes it and disables accounts of those responsible,” a spokesperson told CNN via email.

ISIS merchandize is also available on Twitter, but CNN reports that the microblogging site declined to comment.

Many of the manufacturers selling ISIS paraphernalia come from Indonesia, where there is some support for the extremist group, but it’s not clear whether revenue from the merchandise is going to sympathizers, opportunistic entrepreneurs or ISIS itself.

Terrorism researcher J.M. Berger says he wouldn’t be surprised if profits go to the latter. “ISIS has a big base of support in Southeast Asia — a long history with Islamism and jihadism. A number of foreign fighters come from the region,” Berger stated to CNN.

The Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict published a report in January stating that conflict in the Middle East is attracting fighters from Indonesia.

“Indonesian extremists are more engaged by the conflict in Syria than by any other foreign war in recent memory, including Afghanistan and Iraq,” the report said.

[CNN]

TIME Foreign Policy

Dick Cheney Says Iraq War Was ‘the Right Thing’

Dick And Lynne Cheney Participate In Book Discussion In Washington
Former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney in Washington Win McNamee—Getty Images

No regrets from the former VP

Former Vice President Dick Cheney on Tuesday stood by the Bush Administration’s decision to wage war in Iraq, saying he has never second-guessed the decision even with Iraq once again descending into chaos.

“I was a strong advocate of going into Iraq,” Cheney told PBS in an interview, a week after launching a new political group designed to boost his foreign policy and national-security policies. “I think that was the right decision then, and I still believe that today.”

“I think we did what we had to do,” Cheney added, saying he is still not convinced Iraq didn’t have weapons of mass destruction before the 2003 invasion. “And you don’t get to go back and say, well, we would have — what if we’d ignored all the intelligence?”

Cheney blasted President Barack Obama’s handling of the situation in Iraq, saying he should have more forcefully pushed to keep U.S. troops in the country after 2011 to help keep the country stable. “For me, the bottom line was, when we left office, Iraq was in good shape,” Cheney said. “And now we’re in a situation where obviously we’ve got another big problem.”

But the former Vice President largely agreed with Obama’s handling of the current crisis that has seen the extremist group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria make significant gains in the country. Cheney called for the deployment of additional U.S. military advisers and a swift transition for the Iraqi government, and he warned that American air strikes could have unintended complications. Cheney said the U.S. response to the Iraq crisis must be part of a broader strategy for the volatile region that he says Obama has not yet developed. He also called on Obama to halt the planned withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016.

“I would stop talking about withdrawing from Afghanistan,” Cheney said. “We ought to stay in Afghanistan. We shouldn’t be scaling back.”

Cheney also called for Obama to swiftly work to boost Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, the former military leader who deposed the elected Muslim Brotherhood–led government before his election this year. “I’d help al-Sisi every chance I got,” Cheney said.

Cheney said he was unaware of the conviction of three al-Jazeera journalists in Egypt this week, which has been condemned by the U.S. and by European governments. “I haven’t seen that. I’m not familiar with it,” Cheney said of the news that dominated the front pages of national newspapers on Tuesday. “I missed that one.”

TIME Military

Pentagon Sending a Message to Iraq by Dragging Its Boots

US Fighters patrol the No Fly Zone over Iraq
A heavily armed U.S. F-16 patrols the "no-fly" zone over northern Iraq in 1998. USAF / Vincent A. Parker / Getty Images

Slow-motion U.S. reaction is designed to push Baghdad to compromise

During the first lull—1991 to 2003—in the now-23-year-old Iraq war, U.S. war planes would routinely destroy missile sites operated by Saddam Hussein’s forces if American pilots deemed them threatening.

Now that the U.S. is amid a second lull, since pulling its forces out in 2011, it has adapted a different strategy. While it’s flying 30 or more manned and unmanned airplanes daily over Iraq to chart the progress of the rebels belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, as they bulldoze across western Iraq and threaten Baghdad, the U.S. has numbed its trigger finger.

“No truth to rumors in media today that US drones struck [ISIS] targets in Iraq,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon’s top spokesman, tweeted to his 27,000 followers mid-day Tuesday.

What’s going on here?

It’s simple: the U.S. military generally “sends messages” by attacking. Now it is sending messages by not attacking. And its target this time around isn’t the enemy, but its purported ally running the country.

While the Pentagon officially denies it, the U.S, government is dragging its feet when it comes to defending Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki’s government in Iraq. This Goldilocks approach surfaced at Tuesday’s Pentagon briefing, where Kirby said ISIS is a “legitimate threat to Baghdad,” and said the first 90 U.S. troops have arrived in the Iraqi capital to set up a command post and figure out how the U.S. might be able to help. President Obama said Thursday that as many as 300 advisers could end up in Iraq offering intelligence and guidance to the Iraqi security forces trying to defeat ISIS.

“This is a measured, deliberate approach to help us and [the Iraqi government] get better eyes on the situation,” Kirby said. “This isn’t about making assistance and advice hinge purely and solely on political gains.”

But Kirby described a Pentagon that is in no rush to save the Iraqi capital:

The teams will begin their assessments immediately and provide their findings through the chain of command within the next two to three weeks…we continue to fly routine and regular ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] missions over Iraq to the tune of about 30 to 35 flights per day to help us gain better insight about the security situation on the ground. This continued effort will no doubt aid our assessment teams as they begin their important work…then we’ll make decisions, follow-on decisions, about the second joint operations center in northern Iraq at a later date…Right now we’re sort of in the assessment phase, and standing up the joint operations center is a key part of that. Eventually we’ll move to, you know, a more active advise-and-assist phase.

Washington is trying to hit the sweet spot: promise to deliver enough help in the form of air strikes and on-the-ground advisers to preserve Maliki’s government, but make sure it arrives slowly enough that he feels compelled to compromise with the Sunnis and Kurds who are now tearing the country apart.

It’s a gamble, for both Obama and Maliki.

It isn’t clear yet whose side time is on. The final U.S. troops left South Vietnam on Mar. 29, 1973. Saigon fell to North Vietnam, and South Vietnam ceased to exist, 762 days later, after the U.S. Congress refused to pay for additional fighting. It has been 919 days since the last U.S. troops stationed in Iraq, to wage the war that started with the 2003 invasion, headed for home.

TIME Foreign Policy

Kerry Says U.S. Air Strikes in Iraq Would Be ‘Act of Irresponsibility’

US Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in Erbil, Iraq on June 24, 2014.
US Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in Erbil, Iraq on June 24, 2014. Hamit Husein—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Top American diplomat warns against strikes in a power vacuum

Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday ruled out U.S. air strikes in Iraq so long as its government remains fractured along sectarian lines and incapable of combating extremist Sunni militants who are capturing towns in the country’s north.

Kerry told CBS News that the U.S. military was prepared to provide assistance to Iraqi troops, but launching air strikes at this moment would constitute “a complete and total act of responsibility.”

“There’s no government, there’s no backup, there’s no military, there’s nothing there that provides the capacity for success,” Kerry said.

His remarks appeared to walk back comments made the day before, when he suggested the progress my fighters from the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) could force U.S. action. Kerry is in Iraq this week meeting with the country’s leaders and urging them to form a more inclusive government.

[CBS]

TIME Iraq

Kerry Back in Iraq, Meets Kurdish Leader

From right: Kurdistan regional government president Massud Barzani greets U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at the presidential palace in Arbil, the capital of northern Iraq's Kurdistan autonomous region, on June 24, 2014.
From right: Kurdistan regional government president Massud Barzani greets U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at the presidential palace in Arbil, the capital of northern Iraq's Kurdistan autonomous region, on June 24, 2014. Brendan Smialowski—AFP/Getty Images

The top U.S. diplomat returned to Iraq on Tuesday for the second day in a row, again trying to convince one of its political leaders that overhaul of the Shiite-led government is the best way to deflate a raging Sunni insurgency that is pushing the country toward civil war

(IRBIL, Iraq) — The top U.S. diplomat returned to Iraq on Tuesday for the second day in a row, again trying to convince one of its political leaders that overhaul of the Shiite-led government is the best way to deflate a raging Sunni insurgency that is pushing the country toward civil war.

Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s northern, autonomous Kurdish region, for talks with a key local leader who has feuded for years with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Kerry is hoping that support from Kurdish regional President Massoud Barzani will force al-Maliki to cede more power to Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish minorities and, in turn, soothe anger directed at Baghdad that has fueled the insurgent Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Barzani’s support is important because Kurds represent about 20 percent of Iraq’s population and usually vote as a unified bloc. That has made Kurds kingmakers in Iraq’s national political process.

Tensions have run deep for years between Barzani and al-Maliki, and recently surged again when the Kurdish regional government began exporting oil through Turkey without giving Baghdad a required share of the profits. The Kurdish region is home to several vast oil fields, which have reaped security and economic stability unmatched across the rest of the Iraq.

Kerry met several top Iraqi leaders in Baghdad on Monday, including al-Maliki, in what was later described as a tit-for-tat discussion of frustration and few compromises. Still, Kerry said all the leaders agreed to start the process of seating a new government by July 1, which will advance a constitutionally-required timetable for distributing power among Iraq’s political blocs, which are divided by sect and ethnicity.

Once a stable government is in place, officials hope Iraqi security forces will be inspired to fight the insurgency instead of fleeing, as they did in several major cities and towns in Sunni-dominated areas since the start of the year.

U.S. special forces began arriving in Baghdad this week to train and advise Iraqi counterterror soldiers, under order from President Barack Obama, who is reluctantly sending American military might back to the war zone it left in 2011 after more than eight years of fighting. Al-Maliki has for months requested U.S military help to quell ISIL, and the Obama administration has said it must respond to the insurgent threat before it spreads beyond Iraq’s borders and puts the West at risk of attack.

On Monday, Kerry said the U.S. is prepared to strike the militants even if Baghdad delays political reforms.

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