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US To Urge Partners To Do More To Fight Islamic State Amid Complaints From Pentagon

By W.J. Hennigan and Brian Bennett, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has repeatedly touted the U.S.-led coalition assembled to battle Islamic State militants, but Pentagon officials are expressing growing frustration that some of the 64 partner nations and regional groups are backing the effort in name only.

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has been the most vocal, complaining recently that some allies are “not doing enough or doing nothing at all.”

The grumbling comes as the White House considers stepping up the war effort by sending several hundred more U.S. and allied trainers, advisers and special operations teams to assist Iraqi, Kurdish and Syrian opposition fighters arrayed against the militants in Iraq and Syria.

Pentagon planners argue that more coalition troops and other help are needed before Iraqi security forces can recapture Mosul, the militants’ self-declared capital in Iraq. Last year’s battle to retake Ramadi, a much smaller city west of Baghdad, took months longer than U.S. officials had expected.

Meeting with his national security advisers Thursday, Obama was briefed on plans to accelerate military and diplomatic efforts “on all possible fronts,” the White House said.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry will go to Rome on Tuesday to seek greater support from two dozen nations in the coalition.

They will “discuss ways to further intensify commitments across all lines of effort to degrade and defeat this terrorist group,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said Friday.

Carter will head to Brussels two weeks later to urge defense ministers from 26 countries to send more trainers and advisers, provide more support and reconnaissance aircraft, boost deliveries of arms and ammunition, and increase their role in the war, Pentagon officials said.

At least one nation has received the message. On Friday, the government in the Netherlands said Dutch airstrikes would begin to target militants in eastern Syria as well as in Iraq.

In a statement, Carter called the Dutch decision “a strong example” of what other countries should do. “Additional capabilities are needed from every member nation,” he said.

In addition to the military effort, coalition countries are supposed to impede the recruitment and travel of foreign fighters, stop the group’s funding and financing, address the humanitarian crisis and counter the group’s propaganda.

So far, the participation by each country has varied immensely.

Eight nations have launched bombing runs in Iraq, for example, and nine — mostly the same countries — have done so in Syria.

But America shoulders the heaviest load by far. U.S. warplanes have conducted 68 percent of the 6,655 airstrikes in Iraq and 94 percent of the 3,305 airstrikes in Syria since August 2014.

Coalition member Estonia, in contrast, has provided 12 mortars, 480 rifles and pistols, and more than a million rounds of ammunition.

“We’re a small country, so we can’t be all over the place,” Estonian diplomat Kairi Saar-Isop said. “We have to be very selective in how we help.”

Slovenia says it’s listed as a member of the coalition because it holds local courses designed to dissuade young people from becoming radicalized.

Lithuania has joined efforts to counter Islamic State propaganda and has helped track fighters trying to enter Europe, said Rolandas Krisciunas, its ambassador in Washington.

“We are currently in discussions to send instructors to Iraq to help them build the capacity of local police officers to be able to fight ISIS,” Krisciunas said, using another name for Islamic State.

The U.S. has sent 3,700 troops to Iraq. Sixteen other coalition countries have sent 2,400 troops.

Italian military police are training Iraqi police officers to secure cities once they have been retaken from Islamic State.

In northern Iraq, German, British and Dutch military adviser teams are training Kurdish fighters and providing new weapons, including anti-tank missiles.

Many of the other coalition members have beefed up security measures to identify and stop foreign fighters, and have donated money to humanitarian groups working with Syrian refugees. The U.S. remains the largest donor by far, however, giving $4.5 billion in aid to the Syria crisis.

In public, at least, Obama praises the joint effort. On Jan. 13, a day after he delivered his State of the Union speech, Obama noted that America has led a coalition of “more than 60 countries” for more than a year in trying to uproot Islamic State.

“We’re cutting off their financing,” he told a cheering crowd in Omaha, Neb. “We’re disrupting their plots. We’re stopping the flow of terrorist fighters. We’re stamping out their ideology. We’ve had 10,000 airstrikes. We’re taking out their leadership, their oil, their training camps, their weapons.”

The White House heralded support from its Sunni Arab allies when the air war began in September 2014, noting that aircraft from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates all joined the early attacks in Syria. But those flights quickly ended.

Saudi Arabia launched its own war last year against what it says are Iranian-backed insurgents in neighboring Yemen. Other Sunni nations appear more focused on Shiite Iran’s growing clout than the threat from Islamic State.

Arab states disagree over whether to target Islamic State or the Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar Assad, who is backed by Russia and Iran, Yousef Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the U.S., said Friday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.

“I think the first order of business if we are to resolve Syria is to get everyone on the same page and so far that has been very elusive,” Otaiba said.

The competing objectives have weakened the coalition, said Daniel Benjamin, a former State Department counterterrorism coordinator who now teaches at Dartmouth College.

“You have the makings of a real disconnect between us and our partners,” Benjamin said. “Like other White Houses before it, this White House wanted to demonstrate the legitimacy of what it was doing in the region by pointing to a large coalition, but much of that coalition is focused on other problems and as a result we are doing all the work in the conflict.”

(Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson contributed to this report.)

©2016 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: U.S. Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter attends the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland January 22, 2016.  REUTERS/Ruben Sprich

4 Days Before Clinton Is To Testify, Members Of Congress Argue About Benghazi

By W.J. Hennigan, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — With Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton set to testify before a House committee on Thursday about the 2012 Benghazi attacks, members of both parties appeared on television to discuss how the former secretary of State handled the security situation in Libya.

The Republican-led investigation into the attacks on two U.S. compounds that killed four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, has been criticized as a partisan investigation.

Seven committees that looked into the attacks and the role Clinton and the Obama administration played in properly addressing security matters. The Clinton presidential campaign has accused the most recent committee of bias, particularly after House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., boasted that the committee’s work had driven down Clinton’s popularity with voters.

Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., chairman of the special House committee to investigate the attacks, bluntly dismissed McCarthy’s statement Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

“Shut up talking about things that you don’t know anything about,” he said. “Unless you’re on the committee you have no idea what we’ve done, why we’ve done it, and what new facts we have found.”

Gowdy said the investigation has taken on new importance after recently receiving the ambassador’s emails, which previous inquiries never “bothered to access.”

“If you want a window into Libya and what was happening in the weeks and months before these four were killed, why would you not look at the ambassador’s emails?” he said. “He was a prolific emailer.”

Stevens asked for more security at the embassy because of increased violence but instead received an email from Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal, “who knows nothing about Libya,” Gowdy said.

The committee does not have all of Clinton’s emails, which were kept on a private server, Gowdy said, but it is time to “go ahead” and call her to testify.

Clinton said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that after seven investigations she doesn’t “have very much to add.”

“It’s pretty clear that whatever they might have thought they were doing they ended up becoming a partisan arm of the Republican National Committee with an overwhelming focus on trying to — as they admitted, drive down my poll numbers,” she said. “I will do my best to answer their questions, but I don’t really know what their objective is right now.”

(c)2015 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a campaign town hall meeting in Keene, New Hampshire October 16, 2015. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Baltimore Curfew Ends; City Begins Return To Normal

By W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

BALTIMORE — After five nights, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake Sunday lifted a curfew that required people to stay indoors between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.

“Effective immediately, I have rescinded my order instituting a citywide curfew,” Rawlings-Blake said in a statement Sunday morning. “My goal has always been to not have the curfew in place a single day longer than was necessary.”

The curfew was first enforced a day after looting and arson throughout Baltimore after the wake for 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who died in police custody last month.

Many Baltimore residents had become irritated with the curfew and the mayor, after days of peaceful protests and State’s Attorney Marilyn S. Mosby announcement of criminal charges against the six police officers involved in Gray’s death.

“My No. 1 priority in instituting a curfew was to ensure the public peace, safety, health and welfare of Baltimore citizens,” Rawlings-Blake said. “It was not an easy decision, but one I felt was necessary to help our city restore calm.”

There are still 3,000 Maryland National Guard members spread across Baltimore’s streets.

Still, the city continued the process of returning to normality.

Mondawmin Mall, where looters hauled away thousands of dollars worth of merchandise Monday evening, reopened in west Baltimore Sunday afternoon.

And although city police continued to maintain a large visible presence nearby, where much of the unrest has been centered, the number of officers was far fewer. Those that were there no longer wore the intimidating black riot gear they used last week.

At the intersection of North and Pennsylvania avenues _ the daily gathering spot for the protesters since Monday _ the mess of shattered windows, rocks, and other remains from the unrest were long gone.

Traffic passed through uninterrupted and people came and went, walking to neighbor’s homes, corner shops or grocery stores.

Many attended church, heeding Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s call for a statewide “Day of Prayer and Peace” after last week’s nonstop demonstrations.

“As we begin to rebuild and restore, let us renew our faith in the true spirit of our city and its people,” he said in a statement. “I pray that (Sunday) will be a day of reflection and will serve as a foundation for how we all conduct ourselves in the days and months to come.”

Inside the New Shiloh Baptist Church, pastor Harold A. Carter Jr. preached to a rapt audience from the pulpit.

The church is where Gray’s funeral was held less than a week earlier.

“Unless one is sleeping like Rip Van Winkle or under a rock … everyone is mindful of all that has been transpiring here in our city,” he said. “In spite of the aftermath of Monday evening and into Tuesday … God is still watching over us.”

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Dren Pozhegu via Flickr

Intent Of Russian Military Aircraft Near U.S. Shores Remains Unclear

By W.J. Hennigan, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

TIN CITY, Alaska — The air is frigid and the wind is howling as Air Force Colonel Frank Flores lifts a pair of foot-long binoculars and studies a hazy dot about 50 miles west across the Bering Strait.

“That’s the mainland there,” he shouts above the gusts.

It’s Siberia, part of Russia, on the Asian mainland.

Named for an old mining camp, Tin City is a tiny Air Force installation atop an ice-shrouded coastal mountain 50 miles below the Arctic Circle, far from any road or even trees. The Pentagon took over the remote site decades ago and built a long-range radar station to help detect a surprise attack from the Soviet Union.

At least from this frozen perch, America’s closest point to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the Cold War is turning warm again.

U.S. F-22 fighter jets scrambled about ten times last year — twice as often as in 2013 — to monitor and photograph Russian Tu-95 “Bear” bombers and MiG-31 fighter jets that flew over the Bering Sea without communicating with U.S. air controllers or turning on radio transponders, which emit identifying signals.

The Russian flights are in international airspace, and it’s unclear whether they are testing U.S. defenses, patrolling the area or simply projecting a newly assertive Moscow’s global power.

“They’re obviously messaging us,” said Flores, a former Olympic swimmer who is in charge of Tin City and 14 other radar stations scattered along the vast Alaskan coast. “We still don’t know their intent.”

U.S. officials view the bombers — which have been detected as far south as 50 miles off California’s northern coast — as deliberately provocative. They are a sign of the deteriorating ties between Moscow and the West since Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region in March and its military intervention to support separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Similar Russian flights in Europe have irked leaders in Britain, Ireland, Sweden, Norway, and elsewhere. In January, British authorities were forced to reroute commercial aircraft after Russian bombers flew over the English Channel with their transponders off.

In all, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization says its jets scrambled to monitor Russian warplanes around Europe more than 100 times last year, about three times as many as in 2013. Russian air patrols outside its borders were at their highest level since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, NATO said.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in a statement in November, as tensions heightened over Ukraine, that Russia’s strategic bombers would resume patrols in both the Atlantic and the Pacific.

“In the current situation we have to maintain military presence in the western Atlantic and eastern Pacific, as well as the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico,” he said.

Although the Arctic draws less attention, Russia is flexing muscles there after years of decline. President Vladimir Putin’s government has announced plans to reopen ten former Soviet-era military bases, including 14 airfields, that were shuttered along the Arctic seaboard after the Cold War.

A shipyard in Severodvinsk, the largest city on the Russian Arctic Coast, has begun building four nuclear-powered submarines for the first time in decades, according to Russian news reports. The Pentagon says the reports are accurate.

The Pentagon has responded by spending $126 million last year to upgrade Tin City and other coastal radar stations in Alaska. It also has added military exercises with northern allies — including flying U.S. strategic bombers over the Arctic for the first time since 2011.

Last week, four B-52s flew from bases in Nebraska and Louisiana on simultaneous, round-trip sorties to the Arctic and North Sea regions, the Air Force announced. Along the way, the bomber crews engaged in “air intercept maneuvers” with fighter jets from Canada, England, and the Netherlands.

The Air Force has said it may base the first squadrons of next-generation F-35 fighter jets at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska starting next year.

The buildup comes as melting ice caps are opening valuable new sea lanes, sparking a scramble for oil and other untapped natural resources by the eight nations with territorial or maritime claims in the far north.

“We’re experiencing a reawakening of the strategic importance of the Arctic,” said Navy Admiral William E. Gortney, commander of the Pentagon’s Northern Command and of the North American Aerospace Defense Command.

“Is this a second Cold War? It doesn’t matter what we think,” Gortney said. “Maybe they think the Cold War never ended.”

Analysts say Putin’s government may be ordering the bomber flights as a morale booster for a military that saw its ships turned to scrap, its aircraft grounded, and its bases closed after the Cold War.

“The ability to project military power from bases in the Arctic region is one area in which they are still capable,” said Christopher Harmer, a military analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, a nonpartisan public policy group in Washington.

“This is much less compared to what they were doing in the Cold War,” said Dmitry Gorenburg, a research analyst at the nonprofit Center for Naval Analyses in Washington. “I don’t think they’re threatening anyone. They just want to make sure that no one comes into the Arctic and messes with them.”

The U.S. military downsized but never fully disengaged in the Arctic after the Cold War.

If an alarm sounds, fighter pilots still sometimes slide down gleaming fireman poles at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage and run to F-22 Raptors kept idling in small hangars. The jets, in “hot-cocked” condition, carry fully armed cannons and missiles.

In an underground room on the base, rows of radar technicians sit at glowing screens watching small crescent-shaped blips, each representing an aircraft moving in Alaskan airspace. On the wall, four large screens track aircraft across the Arctic, including Russian airspace.

The wall also holds 261 plaques with red stars. Each represents a successful U.S. intercept of Russian aircraft. A total of 424 Russian planes have been detected since 1983, mostly during the Cold War.

“If they come this way, we’re going to track them, determine who they are and what their intent is,” said Major Carrie Howard, an officer in charge of the air defense squadron.

Most of the time, the blips are commercial planes that identify themselves by emitting transponder codes or communicating with regional air controllers. But some aircraft stay silent.

If commanders here decide to respond, they grab a tan telephone marked “scramble” in red letters. It rings in a war room by the runway where F-22 pilots are always on duty.

“When the phone rings, it stops your heart, it rings so loud,” said one pilot, who asked not to be identified for his security.

Once airborne, the pilots are supposed to get a visual identification of the other aircraft. But the F-22 can fly nearly three times as fast as the lumbering Tu-95 bomber, so slowing down is the challenge.

“You want to go fast,” the pilot said. “The jet wants to go fast. But you just have to ease up alongside of them.”

On September 17, he scrambled in pursuit of radar blips that turned out to be two Russian “Bears,” two MiG-31s and two refueling tankers. The American pilot drew close, radioed his sighting back to Anchorage and returned to base.

“Our presence was felt,” the pilot said. “That’s all that’s needed.”

It was difficult to feel much of anything but cold at Tin City on a recent afternoon, where the temperature was far below zero, the wind was bone-chilling and the world faded into a blinding white of snow, ice, and fog.

Vance Spaulding, 53, and Jeff Boulds, 52, two contractors, spend up to four months maintaining the radar site before they fly out on break.

While here, they hunt musk ox, a long-haired, long-horned animal known for its strong odor, and Arctic hare, which they claim can grow to 20 pounds or more, on the surrounding coastal plain.

“We get cooped up here, so we try to get out in the open whenever we can,” Boulds said. “But I never seen no Russkies. Not yet anyway.”

Photo: Justin Connaher via Flickr

U.S. Military Denies Claims Of Civilian Deaths In Targeting Islamic State

By W.J. Hennigan, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

AL UDEID AIR BASE, Qatar — The sun was setting over the desert as Lt. Col. Jose “Ed” Sumangil, commander of a B-1 bomber squadron known as “The Bats,” stepped into a room crowded with pilots and crews for a final briefing before the night’s combat mission.

Sumangil, a U.S. Air Force weapons systems officer, could recite part of the briefing word for word because he has heard it before every bombing run.

“Savor the moment,” the PowerPoint slides read. “Be lethal and accurate.” And above all, avoid “civcas,” military jargon for civilian casualties.

“It’s our mantra,” Sumangil said before donning his survival suit and helmet, strapping on a semiautomatic pistol and heading out to the flight line. “We do everything we can, every step of the way, to mitigate against civilian deaths.”

U.S. and coalition warplanes have dropped more than 8,200 guided bombs and missiles on Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria since last summer. With the latest surveillance and guidance systems, commanders say, they do more than ever before to prevent bombs from hitting hospitals or causing any sort of unintended fatalities that could bolster support for the Sunni Muslim extremists.

“We can lose this war with one bomb,” said Air Force Col. Lynn “Woody” Peitz, deputy commander of the air operations center at Al Udeid. “The strategic mistake is what I fear the most.”

How well they’re doing is a matter of dispute.

The Pentagon says it has seen no proof that civilians have been killed in more than 2,300 airstrikes on vehicles, gun placements, weapons depots, and other military targets, including some in urban areas like Raqqa and Aleppo in Syria.

But a gulf has opened between the military and critics from human rights groups, who say dozens of civilians have died as a result of flawed intelligence, errant bombs or poor targeting by the U.S. or its allies.

The issue echoed across the United States last week when the Islamic State group said a Jordanian airstrike had killed American hostage Kayla Mueller in a building in Syria. The White House confirmed Mueller’s death, as well as an airstrike on the building cited by the militant group, but said U.S. officials could not validate, and would not investigate, precisely how or where she had died.

U.S. Central Command said last month it had examined 18 claims of civilian deaths, nine each from Iraq and Syria, and had dismissed 13 as “not credible.” It is still reviewing the other five, and has begun investigations into three — two in Syria, one in Iraq — that officials found were based on credible evidence.

The military refuses to release details about the attacks under review and what warrants an investigation.

Lama Fakih, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, has asked Central Command to explain its process. She noted that three Syrian residents told the group that a U.S. cruise missile killed seven women and children in Idlib province on Sept. 23. The military denied any civilian casualties.

“We want their calculations in how they determine whether or not something is credible,” Fakih said.

Military officials say those claiming casualties must produce corroborating statements, photographs, or other verifiable evidence for claims to be further investigated. But that sort of proof is often impossible to obtain.

Coalition airstrikes target sites that the militants control and are largely inaccessible to outsiders. Residents may risk torture or death by stepping forward to work with foreigners.

The focal point of the dispute is the CAOC — the Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid — a windowless, warehouse-sized, two-story command hub for U.S. and allied military operations against Islamic State.

The operation’s floor resembles NASA’s mission control center in Houston, with analysts seated in rows before computer monitors. Two IMAX-size screens shimmer on the walls with real-time video from fighter jets and bombers over Iraq and Syria, as well as streaming video from Predator and Reaper drones.

With no U.S. ground troops directing fire from the front lines, the analysts rely on airborne surveillance and reports from Kurdish fighters and other allies fighting the militants in Iraq and Syria.

Before a major operation, commanders order an intelligence “soak” of the battlefield, using spy planes, drones, and satellites for days to try to determine where civilians live and work, and where militants are holed up. Systems also focus on collecting Islamic State cellphone and digital communications.

Analysts pore over the data and determine where, what, and when to strike. They select which type of bomb — 500 pounds to 2,000 pounds, laser-guided or GPS-guided — using a computer program called the “weaponeering solution” that they say generates the best coordinates to maximize militant casualties while minimizing potential harm to civilians.

The information is passed to bomber and fighter crews while they are over the war zone. Sumangil, the B-1 squadron commander, said he would let militants escape if there were a risk of civilian casualties.

“There are risks we take on every mission,” he said. “We will not risk the lives of innocent civilians. That’s a chance we don’t take.”

That’s not always so clear from the ground, critics say, pointing to an attack on the northern Syrian town of Al Bab.

About 7:20 p.m. on Dec. 28, a U.S. fighter jet bombed a building in Al Bab. U.S. Central Command identified it as an Islamic State headquarters, and said the bomb run was so well “engineered and successfully executed” that only part of the structure was destroyed.

The military did not acknowledge any civilian casualties. Human rights groups say otherwise.

Fadel Abdul Ghany, head of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, an independent group that tracks casualties in Syria, said the airstrike leveled a government center that Islamic State was using to hold prisoners, including locals accused of violating the militants’ harsh Islamic laws. Ghany’s group said 37 civilians were killed in the attack, citing interviews with witnesses and photographs.

Col. Patrick Ryder, spokesman for Central Command, said a Syrian military aircraft had attacked a nearby building in Al Bab a day or so before the U.S. attack, implying it might be to blame.

“If there is new, substantive information available, we welcome it, and will certainly review it,” Ryder said.

In a phone interview from Doha, Qatar’s capital, Ghany said he was compiling that information, but he had few doubts about what happened. Syrian helicopters and fighters fly much lower than U.S. warplanes.

“If anyone knows the difference between a regime strike and a coalition strike, it is these people,” Ghany said. “They have been through strikes of all kinds. There’s a clear difference.”

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Senate Confirms Ashton Carter As New Defense Secretary

By W.J. Hennigan, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The Senate voted overwhelmingly Thursday to approve the nomination of Ashton B. Carter, a former senior Pentagon official, as President Barack Obama’s fourth secretary of defense.

Carter, 60, will take over the Pentagon as the administration steps up the air war against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, officials consider slowing the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and a new round of across-the-board spending cuts loom.

Carter, who will be sworn in next week, has worked under both Democratic and Republican presidents. He won unanimous support earlier this week from the Senate Armed Services Committee.

His easy sail through the confirmation process in the Republican-led Congress stands in stark contrast to his predecessor, Chuck Hagel, a former Republican senator who saw his nomination blocked for nearly two weeks two years ago after he stumbled in his confirmation hearings.

Hagel announced plans to resign on Nov. 24 under pressure from the White House. Hagel, who will stay in the job until Carter is sworn in, has not disclosed his plans after he leaves the Pentagon.

During his confirmation hearing, Carter decried the “malignant and savage terrorism” of Islamic State militants, warned of Iran’s expanding influence across the Middle East and called for an end to the congressionally mandated spending cuts known as sequestration.

Carter also said he was “very much inclined” to provide weapons and ammunition to Ukrainian government forces fighting Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, signaling a possible shift in administration policy.

In a White House news conference on Monday, Obama said for the first time that he was considering supplying arms to Ukraine. But he said he had not made a decision and listed reasons why he might oppose deepening the U.S. involvement.

The issue may be moot, however, if a cease-fire deal announced Thursday in Minsk, Belarus, leads to a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Carter’s immediate focus will be military operations against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, as well as renewed violence in Afghanistan. The military is also trying to deploy additional forces to Asia and the Western Pacific, partly to counterbalance China.

Carter first joined the Pentagon in 1981 under President Ronald Reagan as a technical analyst. A decade later, President Bill Clinton named him assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, where he worked to ensure that the former Soviet nuclear weapons stockpile did not fall into the hands of potential terrorists or rogue states.

Carter left the Pentagon in 1996. He returned in 2009 to serve in the department’s No. 3 slot as the chief weapons buyer, working on the $400-billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. He was named deputy secretary in 2011 but left again after Obama picked Hagel to succeed Leon E. Panetta.

AFP Photo/Mandel Ngan

Obama Defends Foreign Policy Decisions On Cuba, Russia, Iran

By W.J. Hennigan, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — In a spirited defense of his foreign policy, President Barack Obama said in an interview aired Sunday that normalizing relations with Cuba would bolster American influence there and that his diplomatic strategies to contain Russia and Iran are working.

The president, appearing on CNN’s State of the Union, countered critics who have called his foreign policy naive. He dismissed the idea that international leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin are outwitting him.

Obama pointed to Russia’s growing financial crisis, including a steep devaluation of the ruble in recent weeks. Experts tie the decline mostly to falling oil prices, but say sanctions against Russia, pushed by the Obama administration, are contributing to the lack of confidence in Russia’s economy.

“There was a spate of stories about how he is the chess master and outmaneuvering the West,” Obama said of Putin. “Right now, he’s presiding over the collapse of his currency, a major financial crisis and a huge economic contraction. That doesn’t sound like somebody who has rolled me or the United States of America.”

During the interview, recorded Friday before the president and his family left for vacation in Hawaii, Obama said he has been consistent in saying that he will resolve problems diplomatically where he can, rather than rely entirely on U.S. military power.

“There is this knee-jerk sense, I think, on the part of some in the foreign policy establishment that, you know, shooting first and thinking about it second projects strength. I disagree with that,” he said.

International sanctions on Iran, for example, combined with negotiations to curb its nuclear program, have led Tehran to slow it progress, he said.

“Since we began negotiations with them, that’s probably the first year and a half in which Iran has not advanced its nuclear program in the last decade,” he said.

Likewise, opening diplomatic talks with Cuba — as the president announced last week — offers the U.S. a chance to pursue a new strategy after decades of stalemate, Obama said.

“For 50 years, we’ve tried to see if we can overthrow the regime through isolation. It hasn’t worked,” he said. “If we engage, we have the opportunity to influence the course of events at a time when there’s going to be some generational change in that country.”

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who later appeared on the show, criticized the decision on Cuba.

“We would be rewarding the failure that they haven’t done anything,” he said, adding that in the absence of more progress from the Communist regime, the U.S. would be “endorsing their 50 years of oppression and repression in Cuba.”

During his recorded interview, Obama also reiterated his intention to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.

“We need to close that facility and I’m going to do everything I can to close it,” Obama said. “It is contrary to our values and it is wildly expensive. We’re spending millions for each individual there. And we have drawn down the population there significantly.”

The U.S. has released about two dozen prisoners this year, including four detainees who were announced Saturday to have been sent home to Afghanistan.

AFP Photo/Saul Loeb

Obama Names Ex-Defense Official Ashton Carter As Pick To Run Pentagon

By W.J. Hennigan, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — President Obama today nominated former top Defense Department official Ashton B. Carter to replace outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, describing Carter as an innovator, a reformer and “one of nation’s foremost national security leaders.”

“On day one, he’s going to hit the ground running,” the president said.

Obama formally announced his choice from the White House. Hagel, who was pushed out of the post late last month, was expected to attend the event, but backed out at last minute.

Carter, 60, is expected to win Senate confirmation without major difficulty after the new Congress convenes next month.

Carter previously served as the Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer, and as deputy Defense secretary, the No. 2 official. While out of government, he served on advisory boards for both Democratic and Republican administrations.

Unlike Hagel, he never served in uniform. But Carter is widely respected in the military establishment and in national security circles for his experience in managing the vast Pentagon bureaucracy and budgets.

A native of Philadelphia, Carter holds degrees in physics and medieval history from Yale and a doctorate in theoretical physics from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes scholar.

Carter first joined the Pentagon in 1981 for a year under President Reagan as a technical analyst. He left to teach at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before spending nine years as a professor at Harvard University.

In 1993, President Clinton named him assistant secretary of Defense for international security policy, a post in which Carter worked to ensure that the former Soviet nuclear weapons stockpile did not fall into the hands of potential terrorists or rogue states.

He left the Pentagon in 1996 but returned as chief weapons buyer after President Obama took office in 2009. He restructured the controversial $400-billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, and approved purchase of 8,000 armored vehicles and construction of 200 new bases for the military buildup in Afghanistan in 2010.

Carter was named deputy secretary in 2011 but left again after Obama picked Hagel to succeed Leon E. Panetta.

AFP Photo/Jung Yeon-Je

Canadian Police Confirm Single Gunman Carried Out Ottawa Attack

By W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times (MCT)

OTTAWA, Canada — Canadian police confirmed Thursday that a single gunman was involved in a shooting rampage at the Canadian Parliament and a nearby war memorial that left one soldier dead and parts of the city under lockdown for hours.

Ottawa Police Chief Charles Bordeleau told reporters that authorities are satisfied that the gunman, now officially identified as Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, was the only perpetrator in Wednesday’s attacks, despite initial reports that as many as two other shooters might have been involved.

After fatally shooting Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, who was standing guard at Ottawa’s war memorial shortly before 10 a.m., Zehaf-Bibeau stormed the Parliament building in a hail of gunfire but was shot and killed by the ceremonial sergeant-at-arms, police said.

“There is no longer a threat to public safety,” Bordeleau told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

In a brief interview with the Associated Press, the suspect’s mother, Susan Bibeau, offered a tearful apology.

“Can you ever explain something like this?” she said. “We are sorry.”

All city services returned to normal and the House of Commons was set to reopen with a stepped-up police presence.

But while parliamentarians and staffers returned to work, much of Parliament Hill in downtown Ottawa remained closed to the public as a crime scene. A police perimeter surrounded the war memorial while mourners left flowers and notes nearby.

Parliamentarians were meeting at the memorial in the morning before their workday began, an impromptu gathering that drew crowds of journalists and onlookers.

The office of Andrew Scheer, the House of Commons speaker, issued a statement that said the House would begin with an expected address by Prime Minister Stephen Harper at 10 a.m., about 24 hours after Cirillo was killed while standing guard at the memorial and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

“This sends a clear message of Canada’s resolve to maintain its free and democratic way of life,” the speaker’s office said.

During the morning, an unidentified man was detained by police not far from where Harper was laying a wreath at the war memorial. Police wrestled him to the ground and put him in a police car.

A police officer who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media said the man was wearing a white scarf like Zehaf-Bibeau had done and was running toward Harper before he was tackled.

The Ottawa shooting was the second fatal attack on a member of the Canadian armed forces this week, raising fears that the country was facing a terrorist assault. Canada announced this month that it was joining the United States in the battle against Islamic State militants, who have taken over large parts of Iraq and Syria.

“Terror In The Capitol” was the headline on the front-page of local newspaper the Ottawa Citizen.

Security has been heightened at military bases and government buildings nationwide. Canadian soldiers in the Ottawa area were ordered not to wear their uniforms in public, unless on duty, according to the Globe and Mail newspaper.

But many wanted to get back to business as usual in Ottawa, a city where residents are known to practice yoga or play ultimate-Frisbee on the House of Commons grounds. Local news stations were using the phrases “Ottawa Strong” and “Canada Strong” in their broadcasts, an homage to the expression used in Boston following last year’s Boston Marathon bombings.

In a prime-time speech to the nation Wednesday night, Harper said the federal government would “take all necessary steps to identify and counter threats and keep Canada safe.”

“Let there be no misunderstanding. We will not be intimidated,” Harper said. “Canada will never be intimidated.”

Photo: Police block off access to Parliament Hill after shots were fired on Wednesday Oct. 22, 2014 in Ottawa, Canada. (Matt Usherwood/QMI Agency/ZUMA Wire/MCT)

U.S. Intensifies Airstrikes Near Syrian City Of Kobani, But Is Not Working With Militia

By W.J. Hennigan, Tribune Washington Bureau

For a second day, U.S. and Arab allies pounded Islamic State strongholds near Kobani, a Syrian border city on the brink of falling to the militants.
Warplanes belonging to the U.S. and the United Arab Emirates carried out six strikes Tuesday and Wednesday near the besieged town. The attacks were in addition to five strikes that took place the day before.
But U.S. officials cautioned that airstrikes were of limited effectiveness in defending the town.
The Islamic State militants are “not going to go away tomorrow, and Kobani may fall,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said Wednesday on CNN. “We can’t predict whether it will or it won’t. There will be other towns that they will threaten and there will be other towns that they take. It’s going to take a little bit of time.”
Kobani, also known as Ayn al-Arab, has been facing an onslaught from three sides since last month, forcing some 130,000 mostly Kurdish Syrians to flee to neighboring Turkey.
The area has been one of the most active fronts in Syria in recent days. The secular Kurdish militia, known as the Popular Protection Units, are defending the town against militants of the Islamic State, a radical Sunni militia.
Kirby said that although the U.S. military carried out 11 airstrikes in the region over the last two days, it is not in communication with the Kurdish militia in Kobani.
“We don’t have a willing, capable, effective partner on the ground inside Syria,” he said. “It’s just a fact. I can’t change that.”
Despite the lack of communication, the military is confident that airstrikes are hitting Islamic State strongholds in the region, Kirby said.
“We’re very careful and very discriminate about what we hit from the air, and again, we believe we have been effective,” he said. “We know we’re hitting what we’re aiming at.”
Taking Kobani would mark a symbolic victory for the Islamic State, also known by the acronyms ISIS or ISIL, who control a vast swath of land across northern Syria and northern and western Iraq from its declared capital of Raqqa in Syria.
Turkish lawmakers recently authorized the country’s army, one of the region’s strongest, to push into neighboring Syria and Iraq to fight the militants. But the army has not moved in on Kobani, whose Kurdish defenders are allied with Turkey’s longtime nemesis, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.
Islamic State militants, advancing along several fronts in northern Syria, have reportedly overrun more than two dozen mostly Kurdish villages, prompting terrified Kobani residents to abandon their homes out of fear of ethnic cleansing.
Pro-Kurdish protests broke out Monday throughout Turkey in response to the militants’ advance on Kobani. The events turned deadly Wednesday as four people died in demonstrations, bringing to the total death toll to 18, according to Turkey’s Anatolian News Agency.
“Many people died at these incidents,” Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus was quoted as saying to press during a visit to Macedonia, referring to the protests. “Those who pushed Turkey into such chaos, what problem do they plan to solve with that method?”
At the United Nations, the world body’s special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, called on the international community to defend Kobani.
“The world, all of us, will regret deeply if ISIS is able to take over a city which has defended itself with courage but is close to not being able to do so,” de Mistura said in a statement. “We need to act now.”
The U.S. began bombing Islamic State targets near the city on Sept. 27, but carried out only eight airstrikes before this week.
The six strikes near Kobani that took place Tuesday and Wednesday destroyed four Islamic State armed vehicles, two artillery pieces and an armored personnel carrier, according to U.S. Central Command. There were three other strikes against the militants elsewhere in Syria.
Separately, officials said that American, British and Dutch forces used fighter jets and armed drones to conduct five airstrikes against the Islamic State in neighboring Iraq, where the U.S.-led campaign against the militants began on Aug. 8.

AFP Photo/Aris Messinis

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Military Companies Likely To Benefit From Airstrikes In Iraq, Syria

By W.J. Hennigan, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Three days after U.S. warships fired 47 cruise missiles at Sunni militant targets in northern Syria last week, the Pentagon signed a $251-million deal to buy more Tomahawks from Raytheon Co., a windfall for the military giant and its many subcontractors.

As U.S. combat operations ended in Iraq and Afghanistan, the defense industry braced for protracted budget cuts at the Pentagon. Major contractors have laid off workers, merged with one another and slowed production lines as spending shrank and leaner times loomed ahead.

But with U.S. and allied aircraft now bombing Islamic State and al-Qaida positions in Iraq and Syria, including 41 airstrikes since Monday, many analysts foresee a boost to bottom lines for munitions manufacturers, weapons producers and other military contractors — including many in Southern California.

The daily pounding by U.S. bombers, fighters and drones, and the resupply of European and Arab allies that have joined the effort, has cost nearly $1 billion so far, analysts say, and will cost billions more down the road.

Ironically, dozens of the U.S. airstrikes have targeted American-made Humvees, mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles and other armored vehicles that Islamic State fighters captured as they overran Iraqi military bases and airfields during their blitz across northern Iraq this year. The new government in Baghdad is scrambling to rebuild its battered army and will need to buy replacement vehicles.

Wall Street is paying attention. Shares of major military contractors — Raytheon, Lockheed Martin Corp., Northrop Grumman Corp. and General Dynamics Corp. — all have been trading near all-time highs, outpacing the Standard & Poor’s 500 index of large companies’ stocks.

Investors anticipate rising sales for precision-guided missiles and bombs, and other high-priced weapons, as well as sophisticated surveillance and reconnaissance equipment, as the Pentagon gears up for a conflict that commanders say is likely to last years.

“There are plenty of reasons to think that defense spending is going to be on the rise again,” said Wayne Plucker, an aerospace analyst with research firm Frost & Sullivan. “Defense companies are not being harmed by the current situation, I can tell you that much.”

The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a nonpartisan Washington-based think tank, estimates the air campaign could cost $2.4 billion to $3.8 billion per year if the current tempo of airstrikes is maintained.

Congress also has agreed to provide $500 million in weapons and training to Syrian rebels who can act as a ground force against the militants in Syria, although it’s unclear whether that will require new stocks.

The cost of future U.S. operations will depend on how long they continue, their intensity and whether U.S. ground forces are added beyond the 1,600 military advisors now in Iraq.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says the Pentagon needs more money to combat Islamic State, and Pentagon officials have begun working with Congress on an emergency measure to make more available.

“We’re going to require additional funding from Congress as we go forward,” Hagel said at a news conference Sept. 26. “We’re working now with appropriate committees on how we go forward with authorizations and funding.”

The Pentagon was under pressure to lower war-related spending in the latest round of budget requests for fiscal 2015. It asked Congress to appropriate $58.6 billion, about $20 billion less than in the previous year.

But then the Islamic State fighters swept out of Syria and captured more than a dozen major cities and towns in northern and western Iraq, sparking alarm in the White House and a fast-expanding campaign of U.S. airstrikes.

In all, the U.S. has launched 250 airstrikes in Iraq since Aug. 8 and, working with Arab partners, a total of 73 in Syria since Sept. 23. French warplanes also have bombed targets in Iraq, and British fighters also conducted their first airstrikes this week.

In Syria, the Pentagon and its five Arab partners — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bahrain and Qatar — are flying American-made fighter jets and dropping American-made bombs that are guided by GPS signals or a laser beam that’s pointed directly at the target.

The Pentagon said 96 percent of the roughly 200 bombs dropped on a dozen targets in Syria early Sept. 23, the first day of the expanded campaign, were precision-guided.

To replace those munitions, experts say, officials are likely to turn to Boeing Co. for a tail kit that converts an unguided free-fall bomb into a “smart” bomb through installation of a GPS-guided tail section.

The company has sold nearly 262,000 such kits, at $25,000 each, including thousands to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain.

“These coalition partners have already bought quite a bit of weapons from American weapons makers,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with Teal Group Corp., a Virginia research firm. “After a campaign like this, they’re likely to buy more.”

Seal Science Inc. in Irvine, Calif., was among the thousands of smaller subcontractors that shed workers in recent years. The company makes rubber gaskets that are used in Tomahawk missiles as well as F-16 and F/A-18 fighter jets.

Gregory Bloom, the company’s president, says larger military companies are already asking him to increase his capacity to supply spare parts. That means ramping up production and hiring engineers and technicians.

“We’re having issues finding personnel who left the business after the downturn a few years ago,” Bloom said. “We want the work, believe me, but we can’t turn on a dime.”

Having seen boom-and-bust cycles over the years, the Aerospace Industries Association, a trade and lobbying organization in Arlington, Va., isn’t sure military spending will rise again.

“This might not be a turning point,” said Betsy Schmid, a former staff director for the Senate appropriations subcommittee on defense and now vice president for national security and acquisition policy at the association. “While it may seem that there’s enough momentum to get the defense cuts rolled back, there have been no promises made by Congress just yet.”

Photo: David Monniaux via Wikimedia Commons

Pentagon Orders Changes For Deficient Military Health Care Facilities

By W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times

After a review of all military health care facilities, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the military Wednesday to improve treatment at its hospitals and clinics, instructing the armed services to compose a plan on how it can be accomplished.

The three-month examination of more than 50 hospitals and 600 clinics run by or for the Pentagon largely found that quality of military health care was equal to private care but that treatment clearly fell short in some cases.

“We cannot accept average when it comes to caring for our men and women in uniform and their families,” Hagel told reporters at the Pentagon. “We can do better.”

The 665-page report focused on the access, safety and quality of medical care in the military system, which serves 9.6 million active-duty service members, retirees and their dependents.

With an annual budget of more than $50 billion, it is one of the largest health systems in the United States. The services rendered range from medevac of wounded soldiers from the battlefield to pediatric care of children of service personnel.

Hagel ordered the review in May after the 29-year-old wife of a soldier and a 24-year-old active-duty service member died shortly after being treated at Womack Army Medical Center at Ft. Bragg, N.C.

Hagel said any health care facility that patients found hard to access, or where they couldn’t get an appointment, needed to submit a plan within 30 days on how it will improve. Any facility lacking in patient safety or quality has 45 days to produce a plan.

In addition, he said, the Pentagon will create unified standards for care, make its data publicly available and allow patients to provide input.

“These steps are the beginning, not the end of our efforts to improve the military health care system,” Hagel said.

The review was intended to ensure military patients don’t face long waits for care. Disclosures of lengthy waits at veterans’ hospitals forced Eric K. Shinseki to resign as secretary of Veterans Affairs in May.

The review found that on average, military patients could get an appointment with a specialty care provider in about 12 days, less than a standard of 28 days.

But the review found a high rate of surgical complications. Mothers who went into labor at military facilities were more likely to suffer hemorrhages than those at civilian hospitals, the report found, and babies were more likely to have injuries.

“Even small lapses in care can lead to devastating and heartbreaking losses or injuries,” Hagel said. “We must hold the entire military health system to the same exacting standards that we demand of our combat missions.”

Photo: gregwest98 via Flickr.com

Pentagon Chiefs Warn U.S. Ground Troops May Be Needed In Iraq

By W.J. Hennigan, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Gen. Martin Dempsey, the military’s top officer, opened the door Tuesday to sending U.S. troops to fight alongside Iraqi soldiers against Islamic State militants, despite President Barack Obama’s repeated vows not to do so.

Dempsey, who chairs the Joint Chiefs, repeatedly told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he would recommend sending U.S. ground troops to assist Iraqi and Kurdish forces if he deems it necessary. That would mark a significant escalation of the offensive Obama announced last week.

“If we reach the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific ISIL targets, I’ll recommend that to the president,” he said at the opening of his testimony, using one of several abbreviations for Islamic State.

As an example, he said, U.S. troops may be required “at some point” to help Iraqi and Kurdish security forces retake Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, which fell to the militants in June.

“It could very well be part of that particular mission to provide close combat advising or accompanying for that mission,” he said of any effort to retake the city. “But for the day-to-day activities that I anticipate will evolve over time, I don’t see it to be necessary right now.”

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel also outlined a broader military plan than previously acknowledged for eventual cross-border U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State targets inside Syria.

He told the committee that the Pentagon is planning “targeted actions against ISIL safe havens in Syria, including its command and control, logistics capabilities, and infrastructure.”

Hagel warned that the campaign “will not be an easy or a brief effort. It is complicated. We are at war with ISIL, as we are with al-Qaida.”

The comments come as the House prepares to vote on a resolution backing the president’s strategy to arm and train “moderate” rebel fighters to operate against the extremists inside Syria. Hagel told the committee that the goal is to train 5,000 such fighters over the next year at bases in Saudi Arabia.

Obama will be briefed Wednesday by Gen. Lloyd Austin and Gen. John Allen, who will command the expanded U.S. effort, at U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Florida.

The Pentagon has successfully conducted more than 160 airstrikes against Islamic State positions and convoys in Iraq since Aug. 8. Obama has insisted the 1,600 U.S. military advisers now in Iraq will not engage in ground combat.

AFP Photo/Saul Loeb

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Two Navy Fighter Jets Crash In Western Pacific; 1 Pilot Missing

By W.J. Hennigan, Tribune Washington Bureau

Two Navy F/A-18 fighter jets crashed after taking off from the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson while operating at sea in the western Pacific Ocean.

One of the pilots was quickly located and brought aboard the carrier for medical attention. Search efforts continue for the second pilot. No names were released.

The guided-missile cruiser Bunker Hill, guided-missile destroyer Gridley, and helicopters are scouring the ocean in the hunt.

The cause of Friday’s crashes are under investigation.

The Carl Vinson carrier is operating in the Navy’s 7th Fleet area of responsibility, described as the “Indo-Asia-Pacific region.”

In addition to carrier and expeditionary strike groups that deploy to the region, there are 23 ships forward deployed to U.S. facilities in Japan and Guam.

The Navy said the two F/A-18C Hornets have not been recovered. The “C” models made by McDonnell Douglas Corp., now owned by Boeing Co., were first delivered to the military in 1989.

The single-seat jet belonged to Strike Fighter Squadron 94 based at Naval Air Station Lemoore, which is about 40 miles south of Fresno.

The F/A-18 is a twin-engine fighter jet that has been a fixture on U.S. Navy aircraft carriers since 1983. The plane is flown by the Blue Angels, the Navy’s flying aerobatic team.

The aircraft’s fuselage sections are manufactured by Northrop Grumman Corp. in Los Angeles, in a 1-million-square-foot facility on Aviation Boulevard, about a mile south of Los Angeles International Airport.

U.S. Navy F/A-18s have crashed at least five times this year, including these two incidents.

Photo via WikiCommons

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Pentagon Confirms Militant Al-Shabab Leader Killed In Somalia Airstrike

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon confirmed Friday that Ahmed Abdi Godane, the leader of Somalia’s al-Qaida-affiliated al-Shabab militants, was killed in a U.S. airstrike that took place early this week.

Godane, 37, was killed Monday after a special-forces strike hit a militant encampment in a town south of the Somali capital, Mogadishu, officials said. The mission illustrated the Pentagon’s determination to take down al-Shabab members responsible for a wave of bombings and suicide attacks throughout the Horn of Africa.

Both manned and unmanned aircraft were used in the attack, which included several Hellfire missiles and laser-guided munitions, officials said. The assault is seen by U.S. officials as a setback for the Islamic militant group, which has struggled in recent years with leadership disputes, military defeats and questions about its direction.

“Removing Godane from the battlefield is a major symbolic and operational loss to Al Shabab,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said in a statement. “The United States works in coordination with its friends, allies and partners to counter the regional and global threats posed by violent extremist organizations.”

Godane, who took over al-Shabab in 2008, was on the U.S. list of most-wanted militants, with a $7 million bounty on his head. The Pentagon’s action reflects the seriousness with which U.S. officials view the threat posed by the group.

Al-Shabab has claimed responsibility for several attacks along Kenya’s coast that have killed dozens of people. It carried out last year’s attack on the upscale Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi that left about 70 people dead and 200 injured. The group also has carried out suicide attacks in Mogadishu and in central and northern Somalia, typically targeting allies of Somalia’s federal government.

Under Godane’s guidance, the group carried out killings, amputations and other violence, alienating some Somalis. When famine struck the country in 2011, al-Shabab blocked humanitarian aid, intensifying doubt within the group about Godane’s leadership style.
Al-Shabab, which controls a large swath of rural Somalia, has been trying to regain power since being driven out of Mogadishu and the port city of Kismayo by African Union troops in 2011 and 2012.

Godane, highly ambitious but seen as remote from his followers, was a veteran of militant training in Afghanistan who reportedly enjoyed penning poetry. He was rarely photographed, but released occasional audio statements in a droning, pious tone.

He pledged allegiance to al-Qaida in 2009, but was initially snubbed by Osama bin Laden. After the al-Qaida leader’s death in May 2011, the two terrorist groups affiliated early last year. The alliance triggered internal struggles over al-Shabab’s direction and leadership.

Al-Shabab has not yet named Godane’s successor.

AFP Photo/Tobin Jones

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Communication Errors Cited In Friendly-Fire Deaths In Afghanistan

By W.J. Hennigan, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Communication errors by troops on the ground and in the air led to the deaths of five American soldiers and one Afghan during a June battle with insurgents in southern Afghanistan, a Pentagon investigation concluded in a report released Thursday.

In one of the deadliest friendly-fire incidents of the nearly 13-year war, soldiers failed to follow established procedures for relaying their position to an aircraft flying over them, the U.S. Central Command found. Nor did the crew of the Air Force B-1 bomber follow required steps to ensure it knew where ground troops were before releasing a pair of bombs that hit their position.

“Though this was a challenging set of circumstances, had the team executed standard tactics, techniques, and procedures and communicated effectively, this tragic incident was avoidable,” Air Force Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian said in the nearly 300-page report, which was partially redacted before its release under the Freedom of Information Act.

“The key members executing the close air-support mission collectively failed to effectively execute the fundamentals, which resulted in poor situational awareness and improper target identification,” he said.

Few details of the June 9 incident were released at the time, as coalition officials notified soldiers’ families and investigators tried to determine what happened.

The fateful operation, led by Afghans with support from U.S. special forces, was intended to disrupt insurgents and improve security for polling stations before Afghanistan’s presidential runoff election.

The troops came under fire about 7:30 p.m. as they prepared to return to base. They climbed to a ridgeline to gain an advantage against the insurgents who were shooting at them.

But the soldiers did not properly communicate their position to the B-1 bomber crew, which was flying at an altitude of about 12,000 feet providing “close air support,” the report says. Aircrew members mistook muzzle flashes from the U.S. troops on the ridgeline as insurgent fire.

One of the soldiers, Staff Sgt. Scott R. Studenmund, 24, of Pasadena, California, had an infrared strobe light affixed to the back of his helmet, which was intended to notify friendly forces of their location. The strobe cannot be seen by the naked eye but can be detected by a heat-seeking sensor.

The sensor pods on the B-1 aren’t capable of detecting the infrared strobes, however, and the pilots’ night-vision glasses can detect strobes only at limited ranges, the report says.

The B-1 targeted the ridgeline and dropped two bombs, killing all the soldiers: Studenmund; Staff Sgt. Jason A. McDonald, 28, of Butler, Georgia.; Spc. Justin R. Helton, 25, of Beaver, Ohio; Cpl. Justin R. Clouse, 22, of Sprague, Washington; Pvt. Aaron S. Toppen, 19, of Mokena, Illinois; and Afghan Sgt. Gulbuddin Ghulam Sakhi.

About 30,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan, most of whom are special forces who still conduct regular ground operations in the area of the deadly incident. The Pentagon plans to have just 9,800 troops there by the beginning of 2015.

AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski

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Soldier Turned Gun On Herself, Early Reports Say

By W.J. Hennigan, Tribune Washington Bureau

Fort Lee officials have issued an all-clear after the Army base reported there was an active shooter on its base in central Virginia.

In a statement, the Army said first responders arrived Monday morning after a report of a female soldier with a gun inside the Combined Arms Support Command Headquarters building at about 9 a.m. EDT.

The Army said early reports indicate the soldier turned the weapon on herself and fired one shot. She was transported to Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center. Her condition was not immediately available.

The soldier’s name has not been released, but Fort Lee said on Facebook that she is a sergeant first class and has 14 years of service. No other injuries were reported, it said.

Special agents from the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command were on scene and investigating the incident, the Army said.

“No further information will be released at this time to protect the integrity of the investigation,” the Army said.

News of the initial alert was posted on the base’s Facebook and Twitter pages at about 9:30 a.m. EDT.

According to the posts, the report occurred at Building 5020 at the Combined Arms Support Command.

“All personnel should enact active shooter protocols immediately,” the post said. “The installation is being locked down until further notice. More info to follow.”

A follow-up post issuing an all-clear came about 45 minutes later.

The base is about 25 miles south of the Virginia capital, Richmond. It is about 130 miles south of Washington.

Fort Lee is the third-largest training site in the Army, according to the base’s website. Its daily population averages about 34,000, including members from all branches, their families, civilians, and contractors.

AFP Photo/Win Mcnamee

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