News Roundup and Notes: June 20, 2014

Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute developments at home and abroad. Here’s today’s news.

Iraq

Islamist-led militants and Iraqi government forces remain engaged in heavy battles for control of the Baiji oil refinery and Tal Afar airport in northern Iraq [BBC]. Militants have seized control of a chemical weapons facility that was part of Saddam Hussein’s arsenal, but a State Department spokesperson said it is unlikely to contain any materials of military value [Washington Post’s Liz Sly and Loveday Morris]. Meanwhile, government troops are amassing north of Baghdad in an effort to halt the advance of ISIS militants toward the capital [Reuters’ Isra’ Al-Rubei’i].

The New York Times (Alissa J. Rubin and Rod Nordland) reports that Iraqi political leaders have started planning to replace Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and create an inclusive government, prompted by a series of meetings with American officials, according to Iraqi officials.

President Obama announced yesterday that he would deploy up to 300 military advisors to Iraq, but stressed that American forces would “not be returning to combat.” He added that the U.S. “will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action, if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it.” Obama also said that “it’s not the place for the United States to choose Iraq’s leaders,” but noted that only an inclusive government could bring long-term peace. The New York Times (Mark Landler and Michael Gordon), Wall Street Journal (Carol E. Lee et al.), and Washington Post (Karen DeYoung and Anne Gearan) provide more details.

Shane Harris [Foreign Policy] considers that by radically increasing intelligence gathering on ISIS militants, Obama “sent his strongest signal yet” that U.S. airstrikes could be used.

Senate Democrats are uniting behind Obama’s plan to help ease the crisis [Politico’s Burgess Everett and Jeremy Herb], although some have questioned the President’s authority to launch airstrikes without congressional approval [The Hill’s Mike Lillis].

In an op-ed in The Guardian, Just Security’s Ryan Goodman argues that Obama needs prior approval from Congress to launch what would amount to a “brand-new war” against ISIS, a “brand-new enemy.”

Senator Rand Paul, writing in the Wall Street Journal, explains why “[t]here’s no good case for U.S. military intervention now.” On the other hand, Gen. David Petraeus, former CIA Director and head of coalition forces in Iraq, told The Telegraph (Con Coughlin and Tom Whitehead) that the U.S. should launch “targeted” military attacks against the emerging “terrorist army” in Iraq.

Marc Ambinder [Politico Magazine] explores whether the special operation forces, commanded by Adm. William H. McRaven, can restore order in Iraq.

Barak Mendelsohn [CNN] argues why “Obama’s sensible Iraq plan is likely doomed,” while The Economist considers that the President’s “reluctance to use force mirrors American public opinion.” And the Washington Post editorial board warns that Obama must “explain to the American people that there will be no safe outcome without U.S. engagement sustained over years, not months.”

In other developments, the Washington Post (Scott Wilson) reports on how the administration has begun to consider the conflicts in Syria and Iraq as a single challenge, according to senior officials.

Eli Lake [The Daily Beast] notes that the U.S. is reaching out to Bush-era allies in Iraq, in an effort to boost its campaign against ISIS.

The fleeing of thousands of Iraqi soldiers from the oil-rich Kirkuk province last week, following the advance of ISIS fighters, has strengthened the Kurds, who are “closer than ever” to their goal of an independent state, reports the Wall Street Journal (Joe Parkinson).

A retired air force colonel in Saddam Hussein’s army told NPR (Leila Fadel) that ISIS is “not responsible [for] everything” and that the militant group had been helped by former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party and his army.

Surveillance, privacy, & technology

In a surprise move, the House voted 293-123 yesterday to pass an amendment to the Defense appropriations bill that would prevent the NSA from conducting “backdoor” and warrantless searches of U.S. communications [Wired’s Andy Greenberg].

The Washington Post (Andrea Peterson) comments on one of the documents released by Der Spiegel earlier this week, which reveals how the NSA may be using games to encourage analysts working with XKeyscore, the tool for searching through the agency’s vast database of online data.

Ukraine

Following a second phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has set out a 14-point peace plan to be unveiled shortly. BBC reports that the plan pledges to decentralise power, calls for disarmament in the east, and proposes the creation of a buffer zone along the border with Russia.

A second day of fighting is underway in eastern Ukraine, which has killed about 300 separatists so far, according to figures from the Ukrainian government [Reuters].

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen confirmed “a new Russian military build-up” along the Ukrainian border and criticized the move as “a very regrettable step backwards” [Washington Post’s Carol Morello]. The development has prompted the West to revive its threat of further sanctions against Moscow [Wall Street Journal’s Stephen Fidler et al.].

Ahmed Abu Khattalah          

The suspected ringleader of the 2012 Benghzi attack, Ahmed Abu Khattalah, is speaking freely with American investigators on board a Navy ship and has not yet been given a Miranda warning, according to senior U.S. officials [New York Times’ Michael S. Schmidt et al.]. The interrogation highlights the focus on intelligence gathering, rather than obtaining evidence admissible in court.

In an op-ed in the New York Times, former Guantánamo chief prosecutor Morris Day argues why Khattalah should not be sent to Guantánamo.

Reuters (Ayman Al-Warfalli) reports that Khattalah had been fighting the anti-Islamist former Libyan general prior to the U.S. raid, according to his brother.

Other developments

The Wall Street Journal (Julian E. Barnes) reports that the administration pursued several plans to secure the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, including proposals to pay a ransom or release an Afghan warlord, according to officials. However, these alternative options were viewed as unrealistic by negotiators.

The White House has announced sanctions on Uganda in relation to the country’s Anti-Homosexuality Act, which it said “runs counter to universal human rights and complicates our bilateral relationship.” Check out previous posts by Wade McMullen at Just Security for a background to this development.

The House voted 230-184 to approve a measure that would prevent the transfer of Guantánamo detainees to other countries by cutting off funding [The Hill’s Cristina Marcos].

Dawn (Pazir Gul) reports that at least 232 suspected militants have been killed and 20 militant hideouts destroyed to date by the Pakistani military offensive in North Waziristan. Over a 100,000 people have evacuated the area, as the operation is likely to intensify in the coming days.

The Wall Street Journal (Laurence Norman) reports on the nuclear negotiations between the P5+1 countries and Iran this week, with diplomats citing “important differences” on several key issues.

The New York Times editorial board argues that Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah is “creating a political crisis” by interrupting the vote-counting, which “could be catastrophic for Afghanistan, which is still very fragile and under grave threat from the Taliban.”

A car bombing in a government-held area in central Syria has killed at least 34 civilians and wounded many others, according to state media and an activist group [Associated Press].

Kenya’s security forces have shot dead five people suspected of being involved in this week’s coastal attacks [Al Jazeera].

Haaretz has live updates on the search for the three missing Israeli students in the West Bank, where a Palestinian teenager has been killed by the Israeli defense force during clashes.

The UN Refugee Agency reports that the number of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people across the world has exceeded 50 million people for the first time since World War II. The rise in numbers has been largely driven by the Syrian war, although conflicts in the Central African Republic and South Sudan also contributed to this increase.

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

Former Associate Editor at Just Security Follow her on Twitter (@RParekh88).