News Briefs – February 2, 2020

Iraq says joint operations with U.S.-led coalition resume

Joint military operations with the U.S.-led coalition to counter the Islamic State group have resumed after a nearly three-week pause, an Iraqi military statement said Jan. 30.
The pause came amid heightened tensions after a Washington-led airstrike killed a top Iranian general in Baghdad.
The statement said joint operations had resumed in light of the continued threat posed by IS. Militants belonging to the group are holed up in parts of northern Iraq.
The statement also implied that Baghdad was standing by intentions to reorganize Iraq’s military relationship with the U.S.
“In light of continued activities by the terrorist group (IS) in many areas of Iraq and for the purpose of making use of the remaining time of the international coalition before organizing a new relationship … it was decided to carry out joint actions,” the statement said.
The statement was issued by the office of the armed forces’ commander in chief. As prime minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi assumes that role.
The coalition paused operations in support of Iraqi forces in the fight against IS militants on Jan. 5 after a U.S. airstrike killed Iran’s elite Quds Force leader Gen. Qassem Soleimani and senior Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis on Iraq soil, sparking outrage among Iraqi officials.
Lawmakers passed a resolution to oust foreign troops from Iraq after the U.S. strike. The coalition refocused on protecting military personnel amid fears of an Iranian counter-attack.
Despite signs of de-escalation after Iran retaliated with a barrage of missiles on two Iraqi military bases hosting U.S troops that caused no fatalities, outgoing Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi has been vocal that American troops should withdraw and has said steps are being taken to move the process forward. AP

U.S. military chief in Africa argues for vital U.S. presence

The head of U.S. military forces in Africa argued Jan. 30 against troop cuts on the vast and booming continent, saying strategic partnerships in combating a growing extremist threat and assertive Chinese and Russian influence cannot be sacrificed.
“A secure and stable Africa remains an enduring American interest,” Gen. Stephen J. Townsend told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “In the past, maybe we’ve been able to pay less attention to Africa and be OK in America. I don’t believe that’s the case for the future.”
It is not clear when Defense Secretary Mark Esper will decide on possible military cuts as part of a global review with the goal of tightening the focus on China and Russia. Esper on Jan. 30 said that “we are not going to totally withdraw forces from Africa” and acknowledged the concerns that have included a rare bipartisan outcry in Congress.
The prospect of U.S. military cuts worries allies such as France, especially in the arid Sahel region of West Africa as fighters affiliated with al Qaeda and the Islamic State group move into more populated areas. And in East Africa, three Americans were killed this month in the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab’s first attack against U.S. forces in Kenya, with several U.S. aircraft destroyed.
It’s “obvious we were not as prepared there at Manda Bay as we needed to be,” he said of the airfield that was attacked.
“We cannot take pressure off major terrorist groups like al Qaeda and ISIS,” Townsend added. “These groups and many others remain an inconvenient reality in Africa.”
Some of the groups threaten the U.S. homeland, the U.S. Africa Command chief warned, including the Somalia-based al-Shabab. AP

Poland signs $4.6 billion contract for U.S. fighter jets

Poland signed a $4.6 billion deal with the United States on Jan. 31 for the purchase of 32 of its advanced F-35 fighter jets to enhance air defense on NATO’s eastern flank at a time of increased Russian military activity.
Polish President Andrzej Duda said it was an “exceptionally important day for Poland’s air force and for the security of Poland and of our part of Europe.”
Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak signed the deal and handed the document to the U.S. ambassador to Poland, Georgette Mosbacher, during a ceremony at an air force academy in the central town of Deblin.
Duda said it was among the biggest deals in the history of Poland’s armed forces and a sign of the strength of relations with the U.S.
The U.S. Department of State commended Poland’s commitment to modernizing its military, saying the jet “will improve Poland’s ability to provide collective and self-defense.”
Poland expects to take delivery of the F-35 A Lightning II aircraft between 2024 and 2030. It will be the 10th NATO member nation to fly F-35 fighters.
U.S., Israeli and British air forces have already used the aircraft in combat.
Poland’s contract includes training, logistics and simulators.
The jets will replace some of the Soviet-made MiG-29 fighter aircraft that Poland’s air force still uses.
Opposition politicians criticize the contract as too costly and have argued the money could have been used to modernize Poland’s air force in other ways. AP

Al Qaeda in Yemen claims deadly Florida naval base shooting

Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen claimed responsibility Feb. 2 for last year’s deadly shooting at the Naval Air Station Pensacola by an aviation student from Saudi Arabia.
The shooter, 2nd Lt. Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, was a member of the Saudi Air Force in training at the base. He opened fire inside a classroom at the base on Dec. 6, killing three people and wounding two sheriff’s deputies before one of the deputies killed him. Eight others were also hurt.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, released a video claiming the attack. SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks messaging by militant groups, reported the claim.
AQAP has long been considered the global network’s most dangerous branch and has attempted to carry out attacks on the U.S. mainland.
The 18-minute video did not provide evidence of training the shooter, but did indicate that Alshamrani and AQAP were in communication, said Rita Katz, director of SITE. It was not clear when the video was recorded.
The video claimed that Alshamrani had been planning for years to attack a U.S. base, and had been training and “selecting” targets.
The video, which was viewed by The Associated Press, provided a will written by Alshamrani to his family in September 2019, three months prior to attack. He said he wanted to attack the U.S., citing religious reasons. However, he made no mention of al Qaeda.
Foreign nationals participating in U.S. training go through a vetting process. The Pentagon says it includes screening for any illicit drug activities, support for terrorist organizations, corruption and criminal conduct.
The video included audio from top AQAP leader Qassim al-Rimi claiming “full responsibility” for the attack by Alshamrani, calling him “the hero, the courageous knight.” AP

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