The Cable

SitRep: Raqqa Falls as Washington Flails Over Iraq, Kurd Fight

Trump caught in new lie; Washington flatfooted in Iraq

An Iraqi soldier walks past a road sign as they move on the center of Kirkuk on October 16. (AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
An Iraqi soldier walks past a road sign as they move on the center of Kirkuk on October 16. (AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)

 

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Raqqa wrap? American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are claiming victory in Raqqa after clearing the national hospital and Raqqa stadium on Tuesday, the last holdouts of the Islamic State. SDF leaders say they’re back clearing areas of the city, but have all but wrapped up the four-month campaign to free the city of the terrorist group. For the first time in months, there were no coalition airstrikes in or around the city on Monday, according to the U.S. military command overseeing the war.

Iran filling gap in Iraq. Over the weekend, Iranian Quds Force chief Qassem Soleimani visited the leaders of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, in northern Iraq, the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins reports. It’s not known what was said, but within hours PUK fighters began pulling out of Kirkuk, paving the way for Iraqi forces and Iranian-backed militias to pour into the city and its surrounding oil fields.

Washington appears to have been caught flat-footed by the blitz, with Pentagon officials saying fighting between the two sides was just a “misunderstanding,” and criticizing the Kurds for last month’s independence referendum.

Trump not interested. President Trump appeared to wash his hands of the matter on Monday. “We never should have been there,” Trump said Monday, referring to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, “but we’re not taking sides.”

We see you. Despite Baghdad’s insistence that Iranian-backed militias were only playing a supporting role in the fight, a video emerged on Monday showing their leaders pulling down the Kurdish flag in front of Kirkuk’s provincial council building alongside senior Iraqi military leaders.

One was Hadi al-Amri, an Iraqi Shiite politician and head of the Iran-backed Badr Brigade. Amri had previously declared his affection for Soleimani, who has been slapped with United Nations sanctions for supporting terrorism. Soleimani also played a role in the deaths of hundreds of U.S. troops in Iraq.

The other man was Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, also known as Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi, who has been designated a terrorist by the U.S. government in part for his role in bombing the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait in 1983.

What next? The crisis lays bare Washington’s uncertainty over what to do with Iraq once the fight against the Islamic State wraps up.

FP’s Robbie Gramer and Paul McLeary write that Kurdish leaders continue to seethe about some top U.S. diplomats — especially Brett McGurk, the administration’s point man for the fight against the Islamic State — “feeling they are too ready to side with the government in Baghdad. And some Kurds, who were instrumental in halting the Islamic State’s 2014 offensive and in the fights ever since to reclaim territory, feel Washington is tossing them aside now that the danger is past. Kurdish officials are still waiting for a $300 million military aid package the Trump administration promised in April but which has yet to arrive.”

U.S. surges in Somalia. There are now 400 U.S. troops on the ground in Somalia, a sharp increase from the 50 or so the Pentagon sent to Mogadishu earlier this year to assist the Somali army in logistics and planning. The hundreds of extra troops, who quietly flowed in over the summer, are advising Somali forces and assisting in planning and intelligence operations, a Pentagon official told FP. There are more Special Operations Forces operating throughout the country at any given time, heading out in the field with Somali forces hunting al Shabab militants.

Shakeup. The Somali army is going through a tough leadership change, with defense minister Abdirashid Abdullahi Mohamed and military chief, Gen. Mohamed Ahmed Jimale, both resigning unexpectedly and without explanation just days before the horrific car bomb attacks in Mogadishu on Saturday, which killed more than 300 civilians.

Trump caught again. In response to questions from the press over whether he had reached out to families of the four U.S. soldiers killed in an ambush in Niger earlier this month, Trump replied that he planned to call them, giving himself credit for taking extra steps in honoring the dead. “Most [presidents] didn’t make calls,” he said of his predecessors. He said it’s possible that Obama “did sometimes” but “other presidents did not call.”

Of course, that’s not even remotely true. And advisors to president Obama and Bush quickly pointed that out.

Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey has been subtweeting Trump for months on a variety of leadership issues, but took his most direct shot yet on Monday. In response to the president’s latest fabrication, Dempsey tweeted, “POTUS 43 & 44 and first ladies cared deeply, worked tirelessly for the serving, the fallen, and their families. Not politics. Sacred Trust.”

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

Drones. A U.S. drone strike killed “dozens” of Islamic State fighters in Yemen’s Bayda Province, according to the Defense Department. The strike was reportedly targeted at an Islamic State training camp where recruits from the group were undergoing instruction in small arms.

Musical chairs. Speculation is growing that the ever swift exodus of senior personnel from the Trump administration could soon include Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — a departure which could tee up Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) to possibly be nominated to take over the CIA. Sources tell Axios that in the event of a Rexit, current CIA director Mike Pompeo could head to take over as Secretary of State, leaving a vacancy for Cotton to fill in the CIA’s top spot.

Evacuation jitters. The U.S. military is carrying out emergency drills to practice the evacuation of American civilians and servicemembers’ families from South Korea. Commanders from U.S. Forces Korea are trying to calm nerves about possible war preparations by emphatically insisting that the exercise is “routinely scheduled” and not a sign of imminent conflict with the North.

Back off. North Korea is telling the world that insofar as countries don’t join the U.S. in “military action” against it, Pyongyang has “no intention to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against any other country.” North Korean Deputy U.N. Ambassador Kim In Ryong also told CNN that Pyongyang wants to “send a clear message that the DPRK has a reliable defensive and offensive capability to counter any aggression from the United States” before it’s ready to engage in any diplomatic talks with Washington.

Calling it a day. “The operation there is nearing completion and some issues need to be tackled immediately, while the prospects for the situation in Syria also need to be discussed” — Russian Defense Minister Gen. Sergey Shoigu, announcing that Russia is apparently ready to wind down its war in Syria.

Yemen. Yemen’s cholera epidemic is expected to reach 1,000,000 infected by the end of the year, 600,000 of them children. The rapidly growing infection rate has put Yemen on track to become the scene of the worst cholera outbreak in modern history.

Bergdahl saga. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl pleaded guilty on Monday to desertion for wandering off his post in Afghanistan before being kidnapped by the Taliban and held captive for years. Bergdahl received some unexpected sympathy from retired Army Lt. Gen and former Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn in a documentary last year. Asked about Bergdahl’s fate in court, Flynn said, “I don’t think he should serve another day in any sort of confinement or jail or anything like that, because frankly, even though he put himself into this situation to a degree, we — the United States government and the United States military — put him in Afghanistan.”

Later, USS Ponce. It’s the end of an era as USNI News reports that the USS Ponce, the last Austin-class amphibious transport dock ship in service, in retiring. The Ponce carried out a range of missions, from supporting combat operations in Iraq and Syria to humanitarian assistance during the Liberian civil war.

Whodunnit. Who was behind the raft of “sonic attacks” against American diplomatic personnel in Cuba? President Trump pointed the finger squarely at the Cuban government, saying “I do believe Cuba’s responsible, I do believe that,” during a press conference at the White House on Monday.

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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