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Obama To Send Up To 300 Advisers To ‘Train, Advise, And Support’ Iraq

By Kathleen Hennessey and Christi Parsons, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Thursday he is prepared to send up to 300 U.S. military advisers to Iraq to help government security forces fend off the Islamic militants who have seized up to a third of the country.

Speaking to the nation, Obama said the U.S. team would assess how best to “train, advise, and support” Iraqi forces and would take “targeted and precise” actions as necessary.

But he repeatedly said they would not engage in direct combat two years after he withdrew the last U.S. troops from the war in Iraq.

“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,” he said.

Obama’s announcement followed a meeting with his national security team.

The White House has been weighing options for U.S. action over the last week as a surge of Sunni Muslim insurgents captured cities in western and northern Iraq, and appeared headed toward Baghdad, the capital.

Armed clashes were reported Thursday as fighters from the militant group, the Islamic State of Iraq, and Syria battled over the oil refinery complex at Baiji, about 125 miles north of Baghdad.

Obama considered launching limited drone strikes, but defense officials said they would need more intelligence and time before they could recommend targets.

Obama has said he wants to use the crisis to force long-delayed political reforms in Iraq. Washington has been piling pressure on Iraq’s Shiite-led government to enact changes that could appease the Sunni minority and stave off a wider civil war.

But U.S. officials have also acknowledged that such reforms could be slow, and the U.S. might be forced to act first.

Obama said the United States would not take sides to support one religious sect over another in the widening conflict, and urged Iraqi leaders to seek a political solution to the crisis.

“There’s no military solution inside of Iraq, certainly not one that’s led by the United States,” he said.

But he said the United States does not want to “see all out civil war in Iraq” or the creation of a safe haven that terrorist groups could use for planning and targeting against U.S. installations and allies overseas, “and eventually the homeland.”

Obama also said he would beef up U.S. intelligence gathering operations in the country.

The new U.S. force adds to troops already sent to Iraq this week. Obama on Monday notified Congress of plans to send up to 275 U.S. military personnel “to provide support and security for U.S. personnel and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.”

The administration said 170 U.S. personnel were sent to Baghdad over the weekend from within the U.S. Central Command area, and that 100 others would operate within the region to provide airfield management security and logistical support if it is needed.

Republican lawmakers have criticized the President for not taking action sooner, but few in the GOP ranks have said directly that they would support sending U.S. troops into Iraq or even the use of aerial attacks to slow or stop the advance of ISIS.

Democrats have been resistant to new U.S. military involvement in Iraq. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the Senate’s top Democrat, said Wednesday it was not in America’s interest to involve itself in Iraq’s “civil war.”

Photo: Jim Watson via AFP

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Taliban Release Video Of Bergdahl Hand-Off To U.S.

By Kathleen Hennessey and Christi Parsons, Tribune Washington Bureau

A Pentagon spokesman says defense officials “have no reason to doubt” the authenticity of a newly released video that appears to show the calm and peaceful hand-off of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl by his Taliban captors to U.S. custody last weekend.

The 17-minute video, released to NBC News by what the network reported was a “known Taliban spokesman,” shows both sides quickly shaking hands before Bergdahl is handed over, patted down and helped into a U.S. helicopter for transport.

In a statement released Wednesday, Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said the video showing the controversial handover was still being reviewed at the Pentagon.

“Regardless, we know the transfer was peaceful and successful, and our focus remains on getting Sergeant Bergdahl the care he needs,” Kirby said.

Bergdahl was released Saturday after five years of imprisonment and several months of negotiations. The Obama administration negotiated his freedom in exchange for the transfer to Qatar of five detainees from the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.

The swap has been criticized by Republicans who say the White House violated policy by releasing Guantanamo detainees without the required advanced notice to Congress.

The video opens with footage of the 28-year-old Bergdahl seated in a white truck, his head and face completely shaven, speaking with a man who at one point pats him on the chest.

Dressed in a white tunic with a blanket over his shoulders, Bergdahl blinks rapidly and wipes at his eyes as they wait for a helicopter to appear in the cloudy skies above.

The video then captures images of a U.S. helicopter coming into sight, circling and landing, and then of three men in dark clothing running out several yards to meet Bergdahl and the two men who accompany him.

One of Bergdahl’s escorts carries a white flag tied to a stick. Both escorts shake hands with the men before handing Bergdahl over to them. After leading Bergdahl back to the helicopter, the men pat him down.

The video then shows the helicopter disappearing into the sky, and closes with a superimposed message — misspelled and uncapitalized, but clear: “Don’ come back to afghanistan.”

Photo via AFP

Obama Defends Swap Of Taliban Detainees For Army Sgt. Bergdahl

By Kathleen Hennessey and Christi Parsons, Tribune Washington Bureau

WARSAW — President Barack Obama defended his administration’s decision to trade Taliban detainees for the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl on Tuesday, saying there wasn’t time to consult with Congress as he followed the “pretty sacred rule” that Americans don’t leave men and women in uniform behind on the field of battle.

Obama said his administration had been talking with Congress for “quite some time” about the possibility that they might need to execute a prisoner exchange in order to recover Bergdahl, who went missing in Afghanistan five years ago. Obama said he had to act quickly when the moment presented itself.

“We were concerned about Sgt. Bergdahl’s health. We had the cooperation of the Qataris to execute an exchange, and we seized the opportunity,” Obama said. “The process was truncated because we wanted to make sure we didn’t miss that window.”

Days after his release over the weekend, Bergdahl still hasn’t met with his family, Obama said, citing the lessons of the Vietnam era for that delay. Bergdahl is “obviously” not being interrogated as he undergoes tests and recovers from years of captivity with the Taliban, Obama said in dismissing questions about the circumstances of Bergdahl’s 2009 disappearance from his remote military outpost on the border of Pakistan.

The comments came shortly after Obama arrived in Poland on the first stop of his four-day European trip, a tour devoted mostly to conversations about the security of European allies and partners. In a news conference with Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, Obama addressed the criticism back home about the circumstances of Bergdahl’s release and the release of five Taliban members from the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The release of the Taliban detainees came only after the Qatari government agreed it would be “keeping eyes on them and creating a structure in which we can monitor their activities,” Obama said. He acknowledged there is a possibility some of them could return to activities that threaten the U.S., but said that is true of all prisoners who have been released from Guantanamo over time.

“I wouldn’t be doing it if I thought it was contrary to American national security,” Obama said. “This is what happens at the end of wars,” he said, arguing the same was true for George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

“That’s been true of every combat situation,” he said, adding that, “at some point, you try to get your folks back.”

Regardless of Bergdahl’s circumstances, “whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American soldier back if he’s held in captivity — period, full stop,” he said. “We don’t condition that. That’s what every mom and dad who sees a son or daughter sent over into war theater should expect — not just from their commander in chief, but also from the United States of America.”

AFP Photo

Obama Says Russia Not Abiding By Agreement To Defuse Ukraine Crisis

By Kathleen Hennessey and Christi Parsons, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama says Russia is not yet holding up its side of an agreement to de-escalate tension in Ukraine, and he suggested that the U.S. and its allies are prepared to hit Moscow with additional sanctions in coming days.

“So far at least, we’ve seen them not abide by the spirit or the letter of the agreement in Geneva,” Obama told reporters at a news conference in Tokyo on Thursday, the first full day of a four-country tour through Asia.

Obama noted pro-Russia militias continued to occupy buildings, destabilizing embattled eastern Ukraine and sparking fear of military clashes over control of the region. As part of the agreement negotiated last week, Russia said it would publicly urge such forces to stand down. Moscow also promised to allow international monitors in Ukraine and express support for elections slated for next month.

Holding to the agreement “wouldn’t require a radical shift” for Moscow, Obama contended. “Do I think they’re going to do that? So far the evidence doesn’t make me hopeful.”

Obama echoed comment from other U.S. officials this week, as the Geneva agreement appeared to do little to defuse the tension. On Wednesday, Ukrainian government troops claimed to have ousted pro-Russia gunmen from an eastern town, a claim disputed by a leader of the militants. The Kremlin, which the U.S. accuses of supporting the militias, warned that the government’s operations could spark retaliation.

Obama told reporters that the U.S. had anticipated the failure of the agreement and prepared another round of economic sanctions to try to persuade Russia to rethink its posture.

“We have been preparing for the prospect that we’re going to have to engage in further sanctions. Those are teed up,” Obama said, adding that the U.S. was working through technical details and working with other nations. The White House and European Union have been closely coordinating the announcements of previous sanctions.

The new penalties are likely to come soon, Obama said.

“This is a matter of days and not weeks,” he said.

AFP Photo/Genya Savilov

Obama Has Some Convincing To Do On Asia Tour

By Kathleen Hennessey and Christi Parsons, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Two and a half years after President Barack Obama vowed to shift America’s diplomatic, economic and military focus to Asia, he will head back to the region this week to try to convince allies and adversaries alike that he really meant it.

Since the much-touted decision to “pivot” to Asia, the Obama administration has found itself repeatedly pulled away by crises in the Middle East, political battles in Washington and, more recently, turmoil in Ukraine.

A key piece of the policy, an ambitious Pacific Rim free-trade pact, has met resistance from the president’s own party and bogged down in tariff disputes with Japan. The promised transfer of U.S. warships, Marines and other military resources to the Pacific has been incremental, and limited by Pentagon budget cuts.

The result is anxiety among allies, and questions about the U.S. commitment to establishing a counterweight to China’s growing economic clout and military assertiveness.

“In polite company people won’t say it, but behind closed doors I think they’ll openly ask where the pivot is,” Victor Cha, former director for Asian affairs in the George W. Bush administration, said at a recent forum at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Starting Wednesday, Obama will aim to answer that question at stops in Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines. White House advisers say the U.S. remains locked into plans to bolster its military presence, to beef up bilateral relations and regional alliances, and to complete the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks.

Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, portrayed the president’s fifth trip to Asia as crucial to America’s future.

“We increasingly see our top priorities as tied to Asia, whether it’s accessing new markets or promoting exports or protecting our security interests and promoting our core values,” she said at a White House briefing Friday.

“There’s a significant demand for U.S. leadership in that region,” she said.

Outside experts don’t expect Obama to make major promises or offer new resources in six days of official dinners, speeches and “cultural visits,” including one to the National Mosque in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur.

He may not even mention the word “pivot.” White House aides now cite a “rebalance” in part because U.S. allies in Europe and the Middle East complained that a pivot suggested they were a lower priority.

The promise to increase U.S. engagement took a hit last fall when Obama scrubbed a trip to Asia, and his participation in two regional summits, because of the 16-day government shutdown. Since then, Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine has rattled nerves in Asia, where some see parallels to China’s claims to disputed islands and shoals in the South and East China seas.

“Obama’s canceled visit in October, although for good reason, will see him return to a very different circumstance in Asia,” said Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. “While he will still be greeted with much fanfare … the truth is that the region has moved on.”

Two key U.S. allies, Japan and South Korea, are bickering over a host of issues, even as they face increased tension with North Korea. The Philippines has locked horns with China, and no one is happy about Malaysia’s bungling in the search for Flight 370, which disappeared more than a month ago.

“The good thing is that Chinese actions still cause tensions, and so even if the Americans aren’t loved, they seem needed,” Tay said.

Obama will be careful not to take sides in the territorial disputes or to directly antagonize leaders in Beijing. Obama’s aides have denied that America’s new emphasis on Asia is designed to encircle China or restrain its initiatives, but Chinese authorities are suspicious.

In the briefing Friday, Rice denied that the trip, or the policy, “ought to be viewed as a containment of China.”

“The idea here is to have the U.S. shape the security environment, not be drawn into a conversation with China,” said Kenneth Lieberthal, an Asia policy expert at the Brookings Institution. Obama must show support for allies without “making China the bull’s-eye.”

The president’s visit will be his third since he and then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton outlined a lofty vision in the fall of 2011. America would move away from the long, costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and into what Clinton dubbed “America’s Pacific century.”

At the time, Obama suggested that America’s new commitment would be symbolized by the posting of 2,500 Marines to Darwin in northern Australia. About 1,500 Marines are now there, but the rest won’t arrive until 2016.

In a report released last week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee concluded that the pivot has fallen short.

“Despite progress in some areas, implementation of the rebalance thus far has been uneven, creating the risk that the rebalance may well end up as less than the sum of its parts,” said committee chairman Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.

The committee found that State Department efforts have lagged behind those of the Pentagon. In Manila, for example, Obama is expected to sign an agreement expanding U.S. access to a Philippine military base, a sign of the gradually improved military cooperation since Philippine lawmakers in 1991 forced America’s massive air and naval bases to close.

But Defense officials say they’ve struggled to make good on the president’s vision with a shrinking budget.

In March, one Defense official said bluntly that the pivot “can’t happen,” a comment she later took back. In January, Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, commander of U.S. Pacific Air Forces, told Defense News that budget cuts had made it “incredibly hard” to shift resources to the Pacific.

Progress on trade appears equally difficult. Japanese and U.S. trade negotiators intensified talks in recent weeks in hopes of giving Obama and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe good news to announce during the state visit to Tokyo.

But disputes over agricultural and automobile tariffs have lowered expectations. One official said the two leaders would claim only progress, not a deal.

Some critics cite another factor undermining the rebalance: Obama’s credibility problem.

Allies in Asia took note when Obama battled unsuccessfully to block automatic budget cuts from taking effect, and he has not persuaded fellow Democrats to fast-track a vote on the Pacific Rim trade deal.

Some experts said Obama’s threats last summer to launch punitive airstrikes against Syria after chemical weapons were used, his subsequent decision to seek congressional approval and his inability to get it, have sapped confidence in his leadership.

Obama: Russia A ‘Regional Power’ Losing Influence Because Of Crimea

By Kathleen Hennessey and Christi Parsons, Tribune Washington Bureau

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — President Barack Obama disputed the idea that Russia is the United States’ No. 1 geopolitical foe, dismissing Moscow as a “regional power” and arguing that the invasion of Crimea “indicates less influence, not more.”

A greater threat to American national security is the prospect of a “nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan,” Obama said as he brushed off a question about whether Republican Mitt Romney had been prescient in his campaign-season warnings about Russian power.

Speaking Tuesday at a news conference ending a nuclear security summit, Obama conceded that Russia is unlikely to leave Crimea, which it seized from Ukraine, any time soon.

“There’s no expectation that they will be dislodged by force,” Obama said. “So what we can bring to bear are the legal arguments, the diplomatic arguments, the political pressure, the economic sanctions that are already in place, to try to make sure that there’s a cost to that process.”

But he sought to rebut criticism that U.S. influence around the world has diminished under his watch. Although his warnings about Syria and Russia have gone unheeded, Obama argued, no American president has gotten his way on everything.

The world has “always been messy,” he said, but the U.S. continues to be able to lead its allies and “mobilize the international community around a set of principles and norms.”

The president’s remarks capped a meeting of more than 50 world leaders that focused on initiatives to lock down and dispose of dangerous nuclear materials. The meeting has been overshadowed by the crisis in Ukraine and Obama’s efforts to persuade Europe to take a harder line against Russian President Vladimir Putin.

On Monday, leaders of seven of the world’s biggest economies suspended their dealings with Russia through the Group of Eight forum. The leaders also threatened broad economic sanctions if Russia escalates the Ukraine crisis further, a warning the U.S. had urged leaders to state clearly.

In the news conference, Obama insisted that his efforts on that front have not been hampered by tensions stemming from revelations about U.S. spying tactics. The National Security Agency’s surveillance has become an “irritant” with European allies but does not define the relationships, Obama said.

Obama conceded that some international crises he has tried to stop have persisted, particularly the civil war in Syria. But he disputed the idea that his unwillingness to attack Syria militarily had telegraphed weakness to the rest of the world.

“There are going to be moments where military action is appropriate,” he said. “There are going to be some times where that’s not in the national security interests of the United States or some of our partners, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to continue to make the effort, or speak clearly about what we think is right and wrong. And that’s what we’ve done.”

AFP Photo/ Robin van Lonkhuijsen

Obama, World Leaders Exclude Russia From Important Forum

By Kathleen Hennessey and Christi Parsons, Tribune Washington Bureau

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — President Barack Obama and six other world leaders said Monday they will not meet in the so-called Group of Eight forum at a scheduled June summit in Sochi, Russia, but instead will convene at the same time in Brussels without Russia to discuss the “broad agenda we have together.”

Obama called the meeting of the G-7 nations — the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada and Japan — as a way to snub Moscow and devise a unified response to deter Russian President Vladimir Putin from stirring up political trouble in Ukraine or ordering further incursions.

The leaders issued a statement condemning Russia for its “illegal attempt to annex Crimea” and warned that if Russia escalates the situation it would face coordinated sanctions against particular segments of its economy “that will have an increasingly significant impact.”

“Our view is simply that as long as Russia is flagrantly violating international law and the order the G-7 has helped to build since the end of the Cold War there’s no need for the G-7 to engage with Russia,” said deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said. “They’re outside the rules of the road.”

The leaders gathered in The Hague for a summit on nuclear security. But the dispute over Crimea and the repercussions for Russia quickly dominated the conversations. As the leaders descended on the city, Russian forces were consolidating their hold on military sites in the strategically important peninsula.

The fault lines of the dispute were clear at the nuclear summit of more than 50 world leaders. As the G-7 prepared for its meeting, a group of emerging economies — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa _ also met on the sidelines. The so-called BRICS nations issued a statement disavowing sanctions on Russia and urging nations to resolve their conflict at the United Nations. The current approach does not “contribute to a sustainable and peaceful solution,” the group said in a statement.

U.S and NATO officials said they had a wary eye on troops amassing near southern and eastern Ukraine, worrying Russia might extend its land grab.

Rhodes said the president will urge leaders to “stand up to Russian aggression” throughout his weeklong trip to Europe and Saudi Arabia this week. Obama is pushing European and G-7 leaders to align behind stronger economic sanctions that would isolate Russia economically — aiming to push Putin to talks.

Rhodes said that Russia still has a chance to pursue a diplomatic resolution to the crisis. “The door is open for Russia to de-escalate the situation,” he said.

Russia formally joined the other seven industrialized nations to create the Group of Eight in 1998, a move that was viewed as a crucial step toward economic integration with the West in the post-Cold War era.

Cutting Russia off from the group is largely a symbolic move, but one with extra bite, given the timing. Russia holds the group’s rotating presidency this year and was slated to host the annual summit in Sochi.

The event was expected to draw the world’s attention back to the resort town Putin helped develop for this year’s Winter Olympics as a showcase for Russia’s modern status and influence.

The change in its G-status will harm Russia’s reputation, said Matthew P. Goodman, a political economist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former White House point person at G-8 and other international summits.

“Russia’s inclusion is an acknowledgment of their transition to a new system of governance and their importance on the world stage,” said Goodman. “To take it away from them would be very harmful.”

The threat to its global standing could have an impact if it cuts into Russia’s ability to shape world events, said Goodman.

“In concrete terms, there are a number of things discussed in the G-8 that they have an immediate interest in, from economic prosperity to political tensions in Syria,” Goodman said. “In addition to status and prestige, it brings them some concrete benefit in terms of being able to shape issues on a global level.”

For that reason, he said, the G-7 nations also are taking a risk by threatening Russia’s status in their group. Putin could play a considerable role in talks with Iran and Syria and in the effort to limit financing for terrorists.

AFP Photo/Saul Loeb

U.S. Imposes New Sanctions On 7 Russians, Several Ukrainians

By Kathleen Hennessey and Christi Parsons, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has signed an order that imposes sanctions on seven Russian government officials, including a deputy prime minister and one of President Vladimir Putin’s closest advisers.

In a statement, the White House said Russia’s incursion in Crimea undermined “democratic processes and institutions in Ukraine; threaten its peace, security, stability, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.”

The sanctions are intended to “impose costs on named individuals who wield influence in the Russian government and those responsible for the deteriorating situation in Ukraine,” the White House added. “We stand ready to use these authorities in a direct and targeted fashion as events warrant.”

The sanctions also targeted Ukraine’s ousted pro-Russia president, Viktor Yanukovych, his chief of staff and two Crimea-based separatist leaders.

Obama also signed an executive order that would allow the United States to impose further sanctions against Russian government officials and their associates and officials tied to the arms sector in Russia.

A senior administration official said the move “should serve as notice to Russia” that the U.S. will continue to “impose costs” on Russia if it doesn’t reverse course in Ukraine.

AFP Photo/Mandel Ngan