Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Cody M. Poplin
Wednesday, May 27, 2015, 2:40 PM

Shiite militias launched an offensive yesterday to take back Ramadi, relieving Iraqi security forces who lost the territory just over a week ago. The “popular mobilization units,” another name for the militias, plan to secure the Baiji oil refinery and other areas in the neighboring Salahuddin province, before continuing on to Ramadi within the week.

In a sign of what many fear is a coming sectarian battle, the Shiite militias have named the battle for Ramadi “Labayka ya Hussein” --- a reference to one of Shiite Islam’s most revered figures. Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren called the code name “unhelpful.” However, the mood on the ground is different. The Washington Post quotes an officer in the Iraqi army as saying, “[t]he unit’s religious fervor is needed in the face of the Islamic State’s extremism. They fight with faith. we need their energy.”

Even so, the early battle has already taken a dark turn, with ISIS extremists launching a wave of suicide attacks against the Iraqi army in Anbar province, killing at least 17 troops yesterday. According the the Associated Press, the attacks were launched just outside the ISIS-held city of Fallujah. Sandstorms apparently once again played a role, with the militants using the storms as cover to initiate the deadly wave of attacks.

Pentagon officials told Al Jazeera that the Iraqi army held a 10-to-1 advantage over advancing ISIS forces in Ramadi. That news follows a report by Politico, which divulges that while Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter may have taken some fire for his recent comments suggesting the Iraqi army lacked the will to fight, he was “hailed as a hero of sorts by the top brass” for saying loud and clear what they had been warning for months.

After Hamas fired rockets into the port city of Ashdod yesterday, Israeli aircraft struck a number of sites in the along the Gaza Strip, reports Reuters. The Israeli military said that it had hit four "terror infrastructures." At the time of writing, no casualties had been reported.

Airstrikes also continued in Yemen, as the Saudi-led coalition bombed “police commando”  facilities in the capital of Sanaa, killing at least 36 people according to the Associated Press. Witnesses told the AP that the coalition also bombed a naval base in western Hodeida and the northern Houthi strongholds of Saada and Hajjah. In total, the World Health Organization estimates that the violence has killed at least 2,000 people since March 26.

International negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program are likely to extend beyond the June 30th deadline according to Gerard Araud, the French ambassador to the United States. Speaking alongside him on a panel at the Atlantic Council, British Ambassador Peter Westmacott seemed to agree, saying in reference to the deal, “it’s not yet in the bag.”

And from Iran comes leaked video from inside a closed session of parliament in which hardline lawmaker Mahdi Kouchakzadeh accuses Foreign Minister and chief nuclear negotiator Javad Zarif of being a “traitor.” The video pulls back the curtain a bit on some of the ongoing internal arguments erupting throughout the Iranian political establishment over just how much Tehran should concede in order to reach a nuclear deal with world powers.

Overnight in Kabul, four Taliban gunmen stormed a guesthouse near the diplomatic quarter, fighting local security forces until they were killed early on Wednesday. No casualties other than the attackers have been reported. The assault is the latest in a string of attacks on Kabul which started two weeks ago when a Taliban attack killed more than a dozen people at the Park Palace Hotel. Reuters has more on the assault.

The Long War Journal shares the news that the Pakistani Taliban has released a statement rejecting the Islamic State’s “self-professed caliphate.” Seen as new evidence of the growing rivalry between traditional jihadists groups in South Asia and the Islamic State, the nearly 60-page publication, purportedly written by a jihadist known as Abu Usman Salarzai, attempts to “expose errors in Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s claim to be the new Caliph.” The manual also praises Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar as well as al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri.

Newly recovered video footage found in Boko Haram camps shows foreign fighters in positions of power within the Nigerian Islamist militant organization. Reuters notes that this is the first evidence demonstrating that foreign fighters hold significant influence in the organization. The video also demonstrates the group's brutality in the land it previously controlled, holding open Sharia courts and dolling out brutal punishments such as flogging, stoning, and amputations as crowds cheer.

Yesterday, the People’s Republic of China released its first public Chinese Military Strategy white paper. As the New York Times writes, the paper outlines an “active defense posture” and clarifies Chinese intentions to develop a larger naval presence capable of operating farther from its shores. The strategy also contains a few veiled criticisms of the United States, accusing outside powers of “meddling” in South China Sea affairs. Even so, Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren welcomed the strategy, saying “we have repeatedly called on the Chinese for transparency, and frankly, this is an example of transparency.” See more specifics on the paper in The Diplomat; Lawfare covered the release here.

Stars and Stripes brings us the news that a German court is scheduled to hear arguments highlighting the extensive role that Ramstein Air Base plays in the U.S. drone program. The case, filed by the family of a victim in a 2012 drone strike in Yemen, seeks to force Germany to accept responsibility for the U.S. drone program and to ban the use of Ramstein for such operations.

A new rule at Guantanamo Bay will forbid legal counsel from bringing outside food to detainees held in the facility. According to the Miami Herald, the prison says that the ban is for the health and safety of the detainees; however, lawyers have criticized the move, which they argue is aimed at breaking the rapport currently held between defense counsel and their clients.

The AP reports that the travel ban on the the Taliban Five, the senior leaders of the Taliban released from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl last year, is set to expire next week. While the White House is in talks with the Qataris regarding the possibility of extending the travel ban, no agreement has been announced. At least one of the five allegedly contacted militants during the last year.

Time Out: In a move that is bound to send shock waves through the international sports world, the Justice Department has indicted several FIFA officials on corruption charges. The New York Times has more.

Peter Baker at the New York Times writes that President Barack Obama has renewed his support of the USA Freedom Act, calling on the Senate to pass the legislation that will renew (and reform) the surveillance programs scheduled to expire on June 1. In a press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, the President warned, “You have a whole range of authorities that are also embodied in the Patriot Act that are noncontroversial, that everybody agrees are necessary to keep us safe and secure, he said. “Those are at risk of lapsing. So this needs to be done."

The U.S. Department of Justice has charged yet another American with conspiracy to provide material support to the Islamic State for attempting to travel and fight for the group in Syria. Asher Abid Khan, a 20-year-old man from the Houston area, plotted via facebook to join the Islamic State in January 2014, leaving for Syria the following month. Khan returned to the United States from Turkey, after being tricked by his family, who told him his mother had been hospitalized. On Friday of last week, U.S. prosecutors arrested two California men on similar charges.

In Brooklyn, Saddiq al-Abbadi, a member of al Qaeda who led a firefight in Afghanistan that led to the death of an Army Ranger, pleaded guilty to four counts related to terrorism activities on Tuesday. The charges include conspiracy to murder American nationals abroad, providing material support to a terrorist group, conspiracy to provide that support, and unlawful use of firearms. Mr. Al-Abbadi faces a minimum of 30 years in prison.

The Wall Street Journal notes that one of those charges, stemming from the material support statute, has become a key weapon in counterterrorism efforts. However, it isn’t entirely clear exactly what constitutes “material support” for terrorism. One big question sticks out: what role does promoting the group’s message on social media play? And where does the fight to preempt the spread of ISIS propaganda begin to infringe on First Amendment rights?

Parting Shot: “No Gestapo in Bastropo.” That’s the mood in Bastrop, Texas, where the military still can’t convince some Texans that Jade Helm is not a secret plot to conquer the state and institute martial law. The newest conspiracy theory has revealed the “deep distrust that has emerged in conservative parts of the country,” writes Matt Viser of the Boston Globe. His first-hand account of a recent information session on the operation raises a good question: “How did America become so divided, the state of the union so fractured, that the secretary of defense is forced to deny the Army is planning the hostile takeover of a state?”

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

The President says the war in Afghanistan is over. But, the Departments of Justice and Defense are busy arguing that he doesn’t really mean it. Cody and Ben explain.

Yishai outlined the often poorly articulated alternative to the Iran deal, which he argues is a much more viable option than is commonly suggested.

Jack shared the sad news of the passing of Daniel Meltzer.

Finally, Cody linked us to China’s first publicly released Military Strategy white paper. Read it here.

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