More US Troops Headed to Iraq, US General Says

By Lucas Tomlinson, Fox News Producer

BAGHDAD- More US troops will be going to Iraq in the months ahead to help local forces defeat ISIS, the top America military commander in charge of operations in the Middle East told Fox News Thursday. This is in addition to the 560 US forces President Obama ordered to Iraq this week.

"There will probably be some additional capabilities we will need to bring in to complete our objectives," said Gen. Joseph Votel, who heads the U.S.. Central Command.

"As the leadership has told me, if we need something, we need additional capabilities, we need additional people, we should ask for those things and I've been encouraged to do that," Votel added.

The 560 troops deploying to Iraq in the days ahead will help secure an air base 40 miles south of Mosul, recently captured by Iraqi forces supported by US-led coalition airstrikes. America military logistics personnel, engineers ad force protection units will compost the bulk of troops headed to Iraq.

The British government said this week they would send 250 more troops to Iraq as well.

The base will be used to stage Iraqi forces making the assault on Mosul, defense officials say.

Iraqi forces want to build on their momentum following their victory over ISIS in Fallujah, backed by hundreds of coalition airstrikes.

General Votel traveled to Baghdad to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi as well as top Iraqi defense officials to discuss upcoming operations against ISIS.

Votel made previous stops in Afghanistan, Bahrain to visit a US Navy warship transiting the Strait of Hormuz, and Jordan beige arriving in Iraq for the final leg of his visit o the region.

It is not immediately clear what type of forces will be headed to Iraq to help prepare for the long awaited ground operation to retake Mosul, Iraq's second largest city located more than 250 miles north of Baghdad. The majority of ISIS fighters in Iraq are located in Mosul since conquering the city more than two years ago.

Votel said the role of US forces would not change going forward--they will continue to train and advise Iraqi forces away from the front lines.

As the former commander of US special forces, Fox News asked Votel if he had a desire to ramp up attacks using American special ops forces.

"I'm satisfied that we are doing things...to accomplish the objectives that were laid out for us," Votel answered.

Votel said his forces continue to hunt for ISIS emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

"We are all trying to move this as quickly and effectively as we can," he added. "That timeline has to take in consideration the capabilities of our [Iraqi] partners as well."

When asked how close the Iraqi forces were to taking Mosul, seen by many as a critical step in defeating ISIS, Votel suggest it was still a ways off.

"We're probably sometime away from actually going to Mosul," sad Votel, but added, "[Iraqi forces] are definitely moving in the right direction."

Fox News spoke to Gen. Votel before the horrific attach in Nice along the French Riviera killing more than 80 people celebrating Bastille Day.

When asked why Americans care about the war against ISIS, Votel offered this assessment:

"Certainly, when they have sanctuary or they control terrain, it makes it easier for them to do the things they want to do."

 

 

Fox News Reporting - Takeover - The Trump Convention

Premieres July 16th at 8PM ET 

Political conventions are usually where parties unite, but there's nothing "usual" about the big Republican meeting get together in Cleveland.

In Donald Trump, they’ve got an unprecedented candidate—a man who’s never held office and shoots from the hip.  He’s brought a lot of people into the party, people who will fight for him. But he’s also turned off some party regulars -- and some are hoping to take away the presumption from this presumptive nominee.

And that’s just what’s going on inside the convention. Outside may be even more explosive.  There’s certain to be high levels of protest on the streets, and more than a few people who may be spoiling for trouble.  

In Fox News Reporting - Takeover - The Trump Convention we look at the Republican convention—who will be there, how it will be run, how it will effect the election.  Will they be throwing a big party, or will they destroy the Grand Old Party?

 

 

US Navy: Some sailors "did not meet code of conduct" after being detained by Iranian forces

The Navy’s top officer said the performance of 10 of his sailors leading up to and following their capture by Iranian forces in January did not meet the high standards expected of them.

“Those sailors clearly know our actions on that day in January, and this incident did not live up to our expectations of our Navy,” said Admiral John Richardson during a press briefing with reporters Thursday announcing the findings of an investigation into the incident.  

One of Richardson’s top deputies said some of the sailors violated the long standing “code of conduct” that requires all service members to “I will make no oral or written statements disloyal to my country,” among the five articles. [read the code here]

According to the report, some of the Navy sailors gave up their passwords to their laptops, cellphones and sensitive data about their ships to their Iranian captors.

“The investigation also found that some crew members did not meet code of conduct standards while in custody,” said VICE ADMIRAL CHRIS AQUILINO (USN), DEPUTY FOR OPERATIONS, PLANS AND STRATEGY

Aquilino said the rules of engagement dealing with Iranian forces in the Persian Gulf “may not have been understood by the crews.”

Among the findings of the investigation was the crews failed to report they were off track after beginning their transit from Kuwait to Bahrain four hours behind schedule. To make up the time, the two Navy patrol boats decided to take a short cut, taking them inside Iranian territorial waters near Farsi Island, centrally located in the Persian Gulf.

Richardson said that Iran violated international law in their treatment  of his sailors by taking the sailors at gunpoint.

“The investigation concluded that Iran violated international law by impeding the boats' innocent passage transit, and they violated sovereign immunity by boarding, searching and seizing the boats and by photographing and videotaping the crew,” he said.

Richardson said when the boat crew was reported missing “alert launches” of F-18s from the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman as well as US Air Force F-15s launched from bases on land nearby.  A US Navy cruiser, USS Anzio was dispatched near Farsi Island where the US sailors were taken.

Richardson said the task force commander for Task Force 56, who oversaw the two patrol boats has been relieved.  Richardson also said the commanding officer of the riverine squadron has been relieved. 

Another officer in charge of the boat detachment in Kuwait was also let go. Six other people face punishment as well, Richardson says.

“Big incidents like this are always the result of the accumulation of a number of small problems.  And so it's just the nature of these things,” said Richardson describing the incident.

Richardson said the lessons learned from the incident would be taught to sailors around the fleet and also to future generations of officers and enlisted sailors.

“So this will be something that we can mine for a lot of lessons,” said Richardson.

Admiral Richardson said he had not spoken to his Iranian counterpart to voice his displeasure over the incident.

Ted Cruz & Jeh Johnson Square Off Over "Islamic Extremism" "Jihad" Characterizations

A contentious exchange took place between DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson and Texas Senator Ted Cruz Thursday during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing into DHS oversight.

Cruz went after Secretary Johnson over the administration’s alleged “scrubbing” of any references to Islamic extremism or the term “jihad” from DHS counterterrorism literature. Cruz also alleged that references to “Islamic extremism” and the term “jihad” were stricken from FBI counterterrorism manuals as well.

Speaking for the DHS side of the house, Johnson said he had “no idea” what Cruz was alluding to. He pushed back saying that while the broader conversation over terrorism characterizations is “very interesting” and “makes for good political debate,” in practical terms, if the administration were to start giving credence to the so-called Islamic State it would hinder efforts to build bridges within the Muslim community.

Johnson added that while he was legal advisor to the Pentagon’s drone program, when deciding whether to strike an individual he “didn’t care if the baseball card said violent extremist or Islamic extremist.” 

Cruz fired back saying that the scrubbing of that terminology essentially changes law enforcement behavior when responding to terror attacks and accused the administration of “willful blindness” in its efforts to erase these references calling upon missed red flags prior to the Nidal Hasan Fort Hood attack as well as red flags on the Tsarnaev brothers prior to the Boston Marathon bombings. 

US military spokesman: No confirmation Baghdadi has been killed

US mil spox: No confirmation Baghdadi has been killed //US watching Iranian-backed forces "carefully

By Lucas Tomlinson, Fox News Producer

A top US military spokesman based in Baghdad said Wednesday that he could not confirm that the head of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has been killed in a recent US airstrike.  

“I can't confirm one way or another.  We don't know for sure,” said Col. Christopher Garver during a press briefing.  Garver said there were no US airstrikes in Raqqa on June 10, the day and location where multiple reports said the strike took place.  Garver said there were “two small strikes” the next day in Raqqa, however.

“We've been targeting senior leaders of [ISIS] and if we've got an opportunity to get him, we would take it,” said Garver.

There is currently a $25 million bounty on Baghdadi’s head.

Meanwhile Iraqi forces are having a tough time pushing into the heart of the largest concentration of ISIS fighters in western Iraq near Baghdad.

Iraqi forces are now inside the “southern edge” of Fallujah, located 45 miles west of the Iraqi capital, said Garver.

“The fighting remains intense inside the city,” Col. Christopher Garver told reporters during a press briefing Wednesday.  He said while Iraqi forces are inside Fallujah, they have not yet reached the center of the city.

In the past week, US jets have conducted 19 airstrikes in and around Fallujah, he said.

“We have hit tactical units and fighters, heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenade teams, mortar systems, recoil-less rifles, air artillery pieces, and Daesh vehicles,” said Garver describing the targets.

Garver said 40,000 Iraqi civilians have evacuated Fallujah.

When asked by Fox News about Iranian-backed Shia militias carrying out reprisal killings against Sunni Iraqi citizens fleeing Fallujah, Garver could not confirm the reports.

“We have not seen that specifically,” he said.

But he acknowledged such killings between Iranian-backed forces, some of whom killed American troops in the past decade in Iraq, has occurred recently in the ISIS fight around Tikrit.    

“Clearly, it is a problem, something we're going to watch carefully,” said Garver.

Photos of Iran’s Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani as well as his deputy Abu Mahdi al Muhandis have surfaced on social media showing the Iranian generals charged leading Shia militias in the Fallujah battle.

Last week, Iraq’s prime minister said Soleimani was serving in Iraq as an invited guest of his government.

Col. Garver said the US Army Apache strike earlier this week against an ISIS car bomb 50 miles south of Mosul was approved by the Iraqi government before the strike.

Garver said the Apaches are located at various locations inside Iraq, but would not give a specific location when asked if they had been moved to support the Mosul operation.

Garver said there have been 50 airstrikes in northern Iraq in the past week.

In Syria, Garver said the US-led coalition has conducted 73 strikes in Syria supporting an operation to liberate the ISIS-held town of Manbij near Syria’s border with Turkey, seen as a key logistics hub for ISIS to ferrying troops and supplies across the border.

US-backed Syrian force launches operation to retake ISIS-held Syrian town near Turkish border

Lucas Tomlinson, Fox News Producer

A large Sunni Arab fighting force, backed by US special operations forces and fighter jets have launched an operation to recapture a key ISIS-held village in northern Syria 20 miles from the border with Turkey, a senior defense official tells Fox News.

The official said the US special ops troops would “not be engaged in direct combat” during the operation to reclaim the city of Manbij, to seal off a key access point for ISIS to move supplies and foreign fighters into Syria from Turkey.

18 US airstrikes in Manbij in the past 24 hours in Syria have destroyed ISIS headquarters buildings, weapons caches, training areas and six bridges, according to the daily strike report released by the US-led coalition Wednesday morning.  An unknown number of ISIS fighters were also killed according to officials familiar with the operation.

Over the weekend, an American commando was wounded in Syria north of the ISIS de-facto headquarters of Raqqa in a rocket or mortar attack, the first time the Pentagon has acknowledged a US service member had been hurt inside Syria.  In a separate ISIS attack near Irbil in neighboring Iraq, another US special operator was wounded last weekend as well, according to a Pentagon spokesman said Tuesday both ISIS attacks against the US special operations troops did not involve “active combat.”

The Obama administration has gone to great lengths to avoid calling the deployment of some 5,000 US troops to Iraq and nearly 300 to Syria as a “combat” deployment, stressing an advisory role to local forces away from the front lines.

The US-backed force numbers in the “thousands,” but the official refused to disclose the precise size of the force citing operational security.  The official said a small contingent of Kurdish fighters are also part of the ground force, but have pledged to return to their territory in Syria’s northeast following the clearing operation in Manbij, located west of the Euphrates River, historically Arab held territory.

The official acknowledged it was important to show NATO-ally Turkey that Arabs would take the lead in the operation.  Turkey considers the Kurdish fighters known as the YPG a terrorist group, an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK in Iraq.  The United States and Turkey consider the PKK a terrorist organization, which has fought a guerrilla war against Turkey since the mid-80s killing tens of thousands of Turks. 

The YPG has been a key ally for the US military on the ground in Syria in the fight against ISIS.  In January, YPG fighters captured Kobane, a Syrian city on the border with Turkey.

The State Department says the YPG is a separate entity from the PKK, despite historical links between the two groups. 

Last week, photos by AFP of US special operations forces in Syria wearing patches of the YPG surfaced on the Internet, drawing outrage from Turkish officials. 

The YPG has roots in Marxist ideology and pledges allegiance to the PKK’s jailed leader Abdullah Öcalan.  Col. Steve Warren, a Baghdad-based spokesman for the U.S. military said Friday that US forces wearing the YPG patches was “inappropriate” and that corrective action had been taken.

In February, the YPG opened its first foreign bureau in Moscow. 

New satellite imagery obtained by Fox News shows Chinese drone on contested island in South China Sea for the first time

By Lucas Tomlinson

New satellite imagery obtained by Fox News shows that China, for the first time, has deployed a drone with stealth technology to a contested island in the South China Sea, in another sign of escalating tensions in the region.  This development comes as President Obama visits Japan and recently lifted an arms embargo against Vietnam while visiting Hanoi earlier this week, drawing criticism from the Chinese government about stoking tensions in the region.

The newly obtained satellite images from ImageSat International (ISI) shows a Chinese Harbin BZK-005 long range reconnaissance drone on Woody Island in the South China Sea.  The drone can remain airborne for up to 40 hours.  The Chinese drone did not appear armed in the satellite image taken last month.  For the time being, the BZK-005 does not have the capability to fire missiles unlike other drones in China’s inventory. 

Other satellite images show some of the recently deployed HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island transferred from one cluster on the northern part of the island to other locations in a move most likely to make them more difficult to destroy in a potential air strike.  In February, Fox News first reported the deployment of the missiles to Woody Island as President Obama hosted leaders from 10 Southeast Asian nations in Palm Springs, California.

The Chinese HQ-9 is similar in design to the Russian S-300 missile system according to US defense officials and has a range of 125 miles.

Asked about the deployment of the Chinese drone to the island, a senior Pentagon official said he could not comment on intelligence matters.  

When asked about the increasing drone threat by China in the South China Sea at a press briefing Thursday, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook did not address the issue directly, but acknowledged the Pentagon had “concerns” about China’s behavior in the region along with other countries.  

“You've heard us talk at length [about] our concerns about militarization in the South China Sea, not just by China,” said Cook.  "There are concerns about what's happening.”

The Chinese first built a runway on Woody Island in the 1990s.  Located in the Paracel chain of islands in the South China Sea, Woody Island is also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam in addition to China. 

Separately,  China has constructed 3,200 acres of artificial islands atop former rocks and reefs farther south in the Spratly Islands according to a recent Pentagon report to Congress.  

Over $5 trillion in cargo and natural resources pass through the South China Sea each year. 

The LA Times recently reported that China has sold its armed drone, the CH-4, to Nigeria, Pakistan and Iraq, raising concerns about the proliferation of this type of technology.  In December, Iraq claimed to have successfully used a CH-4 against ISIS.  

Earlier this month, the US Navy sailed a guided-missile destroyer near Fiery Cross Reef, one of China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea.   The “freedom of navigation” operation as the Pentagon calls them, took the US Navy warship within 12 nautical miles of the Chinese island, sending a message to China that the United States does not recognize China’s territory.  In response, China launched fighter jets.   Early this year, China tested commercial airliners on a new runway on Fiery Cross Reef.  Defense officials tell Fox News, that China has sent fighter jets and other military equipment there recently.

A week after the US destroyer sailed near Fiery Cross Reef, two Chinese J-11 fighter jets buzzed a US Navy EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft flying 50 miles east of Hainan Island where a large Chinese submarine base is located.  The Pentagon called China’s action “unsafe” and claimed the Navy EP-3 was flying in international airspace.

Chinese officials were quoted Thursday saying China is ready to deploy nuclear-armed submarines in the Pacific, as a result of the United States moving more weapons to the region. 

China has said previous freedom of navigation operations by the US Navy “violated Chinese law” and called the actions “provocative.”  A Chinese military spokesman vowed “dangerous consequences” if similar operations from the American warships continue in the future.

When China’s President Xi visited the White House in September he vowed not to militarize the South China Sea.   China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, reiterated that pledge  when Secretary of State John F. Kerry visited Beijing in February, but said some “self-defense” weapons were necessary to protect the Chinese islands.  

Last month, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter visited the Philippians where US military forces have returned for the first time since the Subic Bay naval base was closed in 1992.   After Carter’s visit, a flight of US Air Force A-10 attack planes flew near Scarborough Shoal, located only 200 miles from Manila, where US defense officials have seen Chinese ships surveying the area for another potential dredging operation.  

US supporting Fallujah operation with air strikes

The United States is supporting an Iraqi military operation to retake Fallujah, the first city to fall to the Islamic State, with airstrikes and is advising the Iraqis at two operation centers in Baghdad and Taqaddum, according to an American military spokesman based in Baghdad.

"We are not pushing guys forward," Col. Steve Warren told Fox News by phone Monday.

US support for the Iraqi military will mirror recent operations to capture Rutbah, a strategic town near Iraq's border with Jordan, Hit and Ramadi also in Iraq's Anbar Province, according to Warren. 

Late Sunday night, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the start of his military's operation to retake Fallujah located 40 miles west of Baghdad, an hour drive from the capital. 

Following a string of bombings killing hundreds of Iraqis in Shia neighborhoods in Baghdad, the Iraqi government put the operation to clear ISIS from Fallujah ahead of the one to recapture Mosul, located roughly 250 miles north of Baghdad.

There are reports of Iranian-backed Shia militias participating in the Fallujah operation.  Those forces are located on the outskirts of town. Warren said the US military will not support those forces.

"We are not going to drop bombs in support of the Shia militias," he said. 

2 Chinese jets 'buzz' US recon plane Tues in South China Sea

By Lucas Tomlinson, Fox News Producer

Two Chinese fighter jets ‘buzzed’ a US military reconnaissance plane in the South China Sea Tuesday in an “unsafe” manner according to the Pentagon.  The incident comes a week after a US Navy destroyer sailed within 12 miles of China’s Fiery Cross reef, an artificial island made after months of dredging operations, more proof that tensions in the region are escalating between two global powers.

It was the third time the US Navy sailed a warship close to a contested Chinese island in what the Pentagon calls, “freedom of navigation” operations.

In response to China’s “unsafe” actions Tuesday, the Pentagon is “addressing the issue through the appropriate diplomatic and military channels,” according to Major Jamie Davis, a Pentagon spokesman who said the incident occurred in international airspace during a “routine” patrol by the US aircraft.

In January, China landed civilian jets on a 10,000 foot runway on Fiery Cross reef, more proof that China is militarizing the South China Sea and threatening US allies in the region.  

In February, China  deployed fighter jets to a contested island in the South China Sea, the same place, Woody Island, where China deployed surface-to-air missiles a week before according to satellite imagery exclusively obtained by Fox News.

The dramatic escalation in February came as Secretary of State John Kerry hosted his Chinese counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, at the State Department.

Wang said he hoped that “close up” military flights and patrols by U.S. Navy ships over the contested islands would end.

Kerry said he wanted China to end its militarization of the contested islands in the South China Sea.

"We want to halt the expansion and the militarization of occupied features," he said.

His Chinese counterpart added that he didn't want to see any more U.S. military over flights or patrols.

"We don’t hope to see any more close-up military reconnaissance or the dispatch of missile destroyers or strategic bombers to the South China Sea," said Foreign Minister Wang.

Chinese President Xi pledged not to militarize the South China Sea when he visited the White House this fall.

In February, Adm. Harry Harris, leader of the U.S. military’s Pacific Command, told Congress that China was clearly militarizing the South China Sea. "You would have to believe in a flat earth to think otherwise," he told lawmakers.  

After the US Navy guided-missile destroyer sailed past China’s artificial island last week, China scrambled fighter jets to show its displeasure.

NBC was first to report the latest incident.

DHS Secy Johnson: We Will Not Compromise Aviation Security in Face of Heightened Wait Times

Per Matt Dean, Fox News producer

DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson and TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger today rolled out a 10 point plan aimed at addressing increased wait times at security screening lines at airports around the country. 

As part of that plan, the agency is expediting the hiring of additional TSA officers - 576 are expected to enter the TSA training academy in Georgia by mid June.

TSA also plans to maximize the use of overtime for its existing officers.

A reduction in size and number of carry on bags will also result in this new plan, something Secretary Johnson said DHS has been in touch with airlines about recently.

Johnson said repeatedly that TSA will not compromise aviation security in the face of heightened passenger volume and longer wait times. He added that recent events around the world confirm the need for continued vigilance.

Johnson did note that there are no specific, credible threats to the homeland at this time. 

Asked about airport security concerns post-Brussels and the potential target non-sterile zones paint given those long screening lines, Johnson said that airport security is being stepped up and reevaluated around the country. He added airport security is a shared responsibility with TSA and local law enforcement. 

In his remarks Johnson warned there will be wait times and that passengers should set "appropriate expectations." 

Johnson said that he would not characterize the current issue of heightened airport wait times as a national crisis, instead he noted that it is an aviation security imperative. Johnson added that DHS and TSA are going to work to bring more resources to face this problem. 

As to his thoughts about airports threatening to privatize security screening, he noted that this is already in place in certain airports in the U.S. - notably San Francisco - and that he is not entirely opposed to the use of private screeners.

Speaking to yesterday's incident at Phoenix's airport, Administrator Neffenger said that the problem occurred as a network switch at the airport failed. He added that airport officials called in the manufacturer of the baggage screening mechanism who worked throughout the night to remedy the problem. Neffenger added that TSA is analyzing the issue and that they believe the problem was isolated. 

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