The Cable

SitRep: Fighting in Kirkuk; McMaster Doesn’t Know if Iran Complying With Nuke Deal

North Korean hacking, mystery boat, Raqqa fight coming to close.

Iraqi forces advance towards Kirkuk during an operation against Kurdish fighters on Oct. 16. (Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi forces advance towards Kirkuk during an operation against Kurdish fighters on Oct. 16. (Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)


By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

What’s up with Kirkuk? It’s difficult to get a read on exactly what is happening in Kirkuk this morning. Reports continue to flood in of Iranian-backed Shiite militias and Iraqi counterterrorism forces moving on Kurdish militia positions in the city, and fights breaking out between various Kurdish militias.

The office of the Kurdistan Regional Government said Monday morning that Iraqi troops and Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces launched “a major, multi-pronged operation intended to enter the city and take over K1 base and oil fields,” using U.S. military equipment, “including Abrams tanks and Humvees.”

But a U.S. military official told FP Monday morning that reports of fighting have been overblown by “extreme” elements on both sides, and aside from one exchange of fire before dawn on Monday, “things have been relatively coordinated.” There are no American troops with the Iraqi forces around Kirkuk, as they are are involved in continuing to advise the Iraqis in their fight with the Islamic State.

The move by Iraqi forces are part of a planned effort to assume government control over areas vacated by ISIS.

The K1 military base has been turned over to Iraqi counterterrorism forces in a planned maneuver, and the fight came when Iraqi forces moved to take control of a checkpoint. The official said the firefight was the result of a “miscommunication.”

Still, the situation remains tense, and control of the oil fields around the city hangs in the balance.

Our old friend. In the meantime, Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s covert operations arm and a frequent point-man for negotiations on sensitive security issues, has reportedly arrived in Kurdistan for talks with leaders there about the independence push.

ISIS claims Israel attack. The group “claimed responsibility for two rockets fired on Sunday from Egypt’s Sinai peninsula into Israel,” just hours before Israeli jets struck Syrian anti-aircraft positions after they fired on Israeli jets flying over Lebanon.

More from The Guardian: “The incident occurred on Monday morning, according to an Israeli military spokesman, who said it was the first time Israeli aircraft had been targeted by Syrian forces while flying over Lebanon since the Syrian war began.”

White House says it wants to stick to Iran deal. That’s the word (kind of) from a bevy of top Trump administration officials over the weekend. “I think right now, you’re going to see us stay in the deal,” U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday.

National security adviser H.R. McMaster added, “the president is not walking away from the deal yet.” McMaster then followed the president’s lead in disagreeing with the entire international community, as well as the U.S. intelligence community, secretaries of State and Defense, and other cabinet members in claiming that Iran is not in compliance with the 2015 deal. ”We can’t really say with confidence that they are complying…This is not a trustworthy regime, so much more comprehensive monitoring is in order.”

The European Union said Monday that they would defend the agreement.

No one is laughing at North Korea’s cyber prowess.  From the NYT: “When North Korean hackers tried to steal $1 billion from the New York Federal Reserve last year, only a spelling error stopped them. They were digitally looting an account of the Bangladesh Central Bank, when bankers grew suspicious about a withdrawal request that had misspelled ‘foundation’ as ‘fandation.’ Even so, Kim Jong-un’s minions still got away with $81 million in that heist.”

Welcome to SitRep. As always, please send any tips, thoughts or national security events to or via Twitter: @paulmcleary.

TMI. “I’ve checked, I’m fully intact.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, responding to comments from Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) that President Trump had “publicly castrate[d]” Tillerson with his offhanded public comments.

Nyet. Russia’s attempt to get North and South Korean officials to sit down at the same table and talk has fallen flat. North Korean officials are currently in Moscow at the same time as counterparts from South Korea and Russia was hoping to use the occasion to bring the two sides together. But Russian parliament members say thus far the North Korean side has refused to engage in any direct talks with the South.

Propaganda watch. North Korea has been dropping leaflets into Seoul featuring graphic cartoons of Korean People’s Army soldiers skull-stomping President Trump

Mystery boat. New satellite imagery reviewed by 38 North shows North Korea is building an as-yet undetermined naval vessel in Sinpo, where its submarine-launched ballistic missile program is underway. The imagery isn’t conclusive enough to draw hard conclusions but analysts say construction activity appears to show either a mothership or submarine under construction.

Troll farm. Russian news network Dozhd interviews a former employee at the Internet Research Agency, the shady Russian propaganda agency responsible for placing anti-Hillary Clinton content and divisive, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant advertisements on Facebook. The former employee, given the pseudonym “Max,” left the agency before the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, but said that the agency’s job before then was similar. “Our task was to set Americans against their own government: to provoke unrest and discontent, and to lower Obama’s support ratings.”

Hostage ordeal. Joshua Boyle, the Canadian man kidnapped by the Taliban and held hostage with his wife for years before being freed by Pakistani forces last week, says militants from the group murdered one of the four children born to the couple during their captivity and raped his wife. A spokesman for the Taliban denied the allegations, saying Boyle’s wife Caitlan Coleman had a miscarriage and called the rape allegations “fabricated claims.”

Sanctions busting. Transcripts of phone taps conducted by Turkish police allegedly show three Turkish men, including Turkey’s economy minister Suleyman Asla, conspiring to violate U.S. sanctions on Iran by trading gold for Iranian gas back in 2013 — all while holding regular meetings with then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The tapes are helping spur a criminal case in U.S. courts, creating a diplomatic sticking point between the U.S. and Turkey as the relationship between the two countries sours.  

Raqqa. Fighters from the U.S.-backed anti-Islamic State coalition are making a final assault on the capital of the caliphate in Raqqa. Syrian Defense Forces estimate that the city is down to just 275 Islamic State fighters, which they hope to uproot during the final push but U.S. military officials warn that “We still expect there to be difficult fighting.”


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