Obama cancels joint war games with Egypt

Updated 18 August 2013

Obama cancels joint war games with Egypt

CHILMARK/VINEYARD HAVEN, Massachusetts: President Barack Obama announced on Thursday that the United States is canceling joint military exercises with Egypt next month, saying normal US cooperation cannot continue in light of the armed forces’ bloody crackdown.
“The United States strongly condemns the steps that have been taken by Egypt’s interim government and security forces,” Obama said on the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard, where he is on vacation.
“We deplore violence against civilians. We support universal rights essential to human dignity, including the right to peaceful protest,” he said in his first public remarks since the crackdown began early Wednesday. More than 600 people have been killed and thousands wounded.
Washington provides $1.3 billion in military aid and about $250 million in economic aid to Egypt every year, which it has been reluctant to cut off for fear of losing leverage there and in the broader region.
Stopping military exercises in Egypt was one clear way the White House could show its displeasure. It was the first significant US move to penalize Egypt’s military rulers. Previously, the US government had announced a decision to halt delivery to Egypt of four US-made F-16 fighters.
Some analysts and lawmakers questioned whether the cancelation of the “Bright Star” military exercises was enough.
“This falls well short of the fundamental rethinking and reorientation that is necessary right now,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research for the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings.

“If the US wants to reestablish its leverage it will actually have to do something to show it is serious. The first serious step would be cutting aid, then there would be no doubt that finally the US is serious about using its leverage.”
Obama said the state of emergency should be lifted in Egypt and a process of national reconciliation started.
“While we want to sustain our relationship with Egypt, our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back,” Obama said.
“Going forward, I’ve asked my national security team to assess the implications of the actions taken by the interim government and further steps we may take as necessary with respect to the US-Egyptian relationship.”
He did not elaborate, but the State Department said the United States would review its aid to Egypt in “all forms.”
The military drill, which dates back to 1981, is seen as a cornerstone of US-Egyptian military relations. It began after the Camp David Peace Accords between Egypt and Israel.
Obama, who departed for a game of golf shortly after making his statement, vented frustration that both sides in the Egyptian conflict were blaming the United States for the turmoil in the country since the military ousted Mohamed Mursi, Egypt’s first freely elected president, on July 3.
The United States has insisted it is not taking sides. But it chose not to condemn Mursi’s ouster or call for his reinstatement, leaving the impression that it had tacitly sided with the military and accepted a coup.
“We’ve been blamed by supporters of Mursi. We’ve been blamed by the other side as if we are supporters of Mursi. That kind of approach will do nothing to help Egyptians achieve the future that they deserve,” Obama said.
“We want Egypt to succeed. We want a peaceful, democratic, prosperous Egypt. That’s our interest. But to achieve that, the Egyptians are going to have to do the work.”

Calls for end to aid
On Thursday, hundreds of supporters of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood stormed a government building in Cairo and set it ablaze, venting their fury at the crackdown on the Islamist movement.
Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous nation, is of strategic importance because of its peace treaty with close US ally Israel and its control of the Suez Canal, a vital waterway for trade and for the US military.
Despite scrapping the joint military drills, the United States signaled it would maintain ties to Egypt’s generals.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel spoke “at length” on Thursday with Egyptian army chief General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, and the contacts would continue even as Washington assessed the various aspects of its relationship with Egypt.
He said the issue of aid was affected by “a complicated set of factors.”
Cutting off US aid to Egypt could be tricky because of complex financing arrangements that allow Egypt to stretch out its purchases of US military equipment over several years; breaking the contracts would impact US defense contractors as well as the Egyptians.
Held every two years, the “Bright Star” exercise was also canceled in 2011 because of the political turmoil in Egypt following the ouster of longtime autocrat and US ally Hosni Mubarak.
Several thousand US troops had been slated to participate in the exercise, which was due to begin Sept. 18, said Max Blumenfeld, spokesman for US Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East and central Asia. He said past exercises focused on integration of naval forces, airborne operations, field exercises and disposal of explosive ordnance.
Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat and chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee in charge of foreign aid, said that military aid to Egypt should stop under a US law that triggers an aid cutoff if a military coup has taken place. The administration has repeatedly said it has not determined whether the military’s actions in Cairo amounted to a coup.
“While suspending joint military exercises as the president has done is an important step, our law is clear: aid to the Egyptian military should cease unless they restore democracy,” Leahy said in a statement.
The full Senate Appropriations Committee late last month voted to tie aid to Cairo to the restoration of a democratically-elected government in Egypt. But the legislation is still working its way through Congress and has not become law.


US warns Iraq of Baghdad embassy closure if attacks continue

Updated 47 min 6 sec ago

US warns Iraq of Baghdad embassy closure if attacks continue

  • US reacts to ongoing rocket fire from Iranian-supported groups on or near the vast US Embassy compound in Baghdad
  • Closing the facility, which is by physical size the largest US diplomatic mission in the world, would be a complex and time-consuming process

BAGHDAD: The Trump administration has warned Iraq that it will close its embassy in Baghdad if the government does not take swift and decisive action to end persistent rocket and other attacks by Iranian-backed militias and rogue armed elements on American and allied interests in the country, US, Iraqi and other officials said Monday.
As news of the warning sent shockwaves across Baghdad, Iraq’s military said a Katyusha rocket hit near Baghdad airport, killing five Iraqi civilians and severely wounding two others.
A US official said the administration’s warning was given to both Iraq’s president and prime minister but that it was not an imminent ultimatum. The official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The warning signals the administration’s increasing frustration and anger with ongoing rocket fire from Iranian-supported groups on or near the vast US Embassy compound in Baghdad as it steps up pressure on Iran with the re-imposition of crippling sanctions. However, closing the embassy and withdrawing US personnel from Baghdad would signal a significant retreat from a country in which successive administrations have invested massive amounts of money and lives.
The threat to evacuate the embassy, which has stoked concerns in Baghdad of a diplomatic crisis, was first delivered to President Barham Saleh on Tuesday in a phone call with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Iraqi officials said. Pompeo then repeated the warning to Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi on Saturday, the officials said.
Pompeo told Saleh that if the US presence continues to be targeted, measures would be taken to close the embassy and a “strong and violent” response would follow against the groups responsible for the attacks, according to three Iraqi officials with knowledge of the call.
Pompeo went further with Al-Kadhimi on Saturday, telling the prime minister that the US will initiate plans to withdraw from the embassy, according to the Iraqi officials who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
An official announcement has not been made by the Americans. But the Trump administration has not been shy about expressing its anger and concern about continuing rocket attacks by Iranian-backed groups on or near the embassy compound.
In a tangible sign of a strain in US-Iraq relations, the State Department shortened an Iran sanctions waiver deadline by 60 days last week. The previous waiver, crucial for Iraq to import badly needed Iranian gas to meet power demands, gave the government 120 days.
Without the waiver, Iraq would suffer crippling sanctions barring it access to US dollars.
Despite comments from US officials that a deadline on closing the embassy is not in place, Iraqi officials appeared to be under the impression they have until the waiver expires in two months’ time to take action.
“America will observe what measures the government of Iraq takes within two months,” one senior Iraqi official said. During this time, Al-Kadhimi’s administration must halt the targeting of foreign missions, military installations and logistics convoys destined for the US-led coalition or else, “aggressive” action would follow, the official said.
Iraq’s leadership is feeling the heat.
Al-Kadhimi, Saleh and Parliament Speaker Mohamed Al-Halbousi held a meeting late Sunday in which all three leaders said they supported measures to bring arms under the authority of the state and to prevent the targeting of diplomatic missions.
So far, Iraqi authorities have redistributed some security forces inside the Green Zone.
The Iraqi officials also said two factors might determine whether Iraq’s leadership can walk back from an impending diplomatic crisis: Security fallout from protests planned in the coming weeks to mark one year since mass anti-government demonstrations began, and domestic politics inside the US ahead of the November federal election.
“We expect large crowds,” said one official of the protests. “And we expect it will impact American thinking.”
Two Western diplomats said they had been informed that the US has started the process of closing its sprawling facility inside the heavily fortified Green Zone, but could not provide details. The US Embassy declined to comment.
Closing the facility, which is by physical size the largest US diplomatic mission in the world, is expected to be a complex and time-consuming process. The embassy was already functioning at minimum levels since March due to the coronavirus and ongoing security threats.
Diplomats were told the US had already started the process of closing but would “re-evaluate while progressing,” one Western official said, suggesting the decision was reversible if security inside the Green Zone improved. In 2018, Pompeo ordered the closure of the US consulate in the southern Iraqi city of Basra due to attacks by Iranian-backed militias.
As a member of Congress, Pompeo had been a strong critic of the Obama administration and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over the deadly attack on US diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya. He is loathe to see a repeat of such an attack on his watch, according to current and former US officials. In addition, Trump has been clear about his desire to reduce the US presence in the Mideast, although he has focused primarily on the military.
However, closing the embassy after the massive US investment of lives and money in Iraq since 2003 would likely draw significant criticism from Trump allies in Congress, including lawmakers who supported the invasion and ouster of Saddam Hussein. Ahead of November’s election, it is not clear if Trump would be willing to invite that criticism.
The State Department declined to comment on the calls between Pompeo and Iraq’s leadership, but said the US will not tolerate threats.
“We have made the point before that the actions of lawless Iran-backed militias remains the single biggest deterrent to stability in Iraq,” the department said. “It is unacceptable for Iran-backed groups to launch rockets at our embassy, attack American and other diplomats, and threaten law and order in Iraq.”
Meanwhile, attacks targeting convoys continue.
On Monday, five Iraqi civilians were killed and two severely wounded after a Katyusha rocket hit near Baghdad airport, Iraq’s military said. The rocket may have been targeting the international airport but struck a residential home close by instead, Iraqi security officials said, requesting anonymity in line with regulations.
Also on Monday, a roadside bomb targeted a convoy carrying materials destined for US forces southwest of Baghdad, two Iraqi security officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.