OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Iraq immunity clears way for advisers

THE TOPLINE: The Obama administration secured an immunity deal for U.S. special operations forces, paving the way for 300 military advisers to help train Iraqi troops.

President Obama has said the soldiers will assist Iraqi forces staring down the rapidly advancing Sunni Muslim group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which over the weekend captured a pair of pivotal border crossings with Syria and Jordan. 

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Officials say the advisers will also play a crucial role in improving American intelligence in the region, were the president to decide at some point to authorize air strikes.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest stressed on Monday that “this is a problem that's going to be solved politically, and it's going to require some very difficult choices to be made by Iraq's political leaders.”

Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had committed to forming a more inclusive government, including Sunni and Kurdish leaders. Kerry visited Baghdad to meet with Maliki Monday on an unannounced trip.

Still, the emphasis placed by the administration on securing legal protection for American troops acknowledges U.S. soldiers could find themselves in troubling situations. 
 
Administration officials emphasize that the mission, which would see the troops embedding at joint operation centers in Baghdad and Northern Iraq, is “non-combat,” but they also acknowledge that the troops need legal protection as a precaution. 

“There's no question that we are putting people into harm's way,” Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren said Monday. 

The agreement between the U.S. and Iraq would grant U.S. troops immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law, subject instead to the Uniform Code of Military Justice.  

Defense officials insist there is “no intent for these special operators to be engaged in direct combat.” 

“They don't have an offensive role. They're strictly there as advisers. So they should not, as a matter of routine, come into direct contact with the enemy,” Warren said. 

But in another sign troops could find themselves in danger, special ops dispatched to Iraq will earn “imminent danger pay.” Soldiers deploying to Iraq will bank an additional $7.50 per day, for a maximum of $225 per month. 

The Obama administration was not able to obtain immunity for U.S. troops in 2011, leading to a full withdrawal of American troops.

Officials said this time it was different, given the smaller number of forces. 

“This is a much smaller number of advisers, [there was] a clear Iraqi request for us and appropriate assurances from the government,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said.  “So it's just a very different situation.”

SYRIAN STOCKPILE REMOVED. International weapons inspectors announced that Syria handed over the last of its declared chemical weapons stockpile for destruction.

The head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said that after nine months of work the final 8 percent of the 1,300-ton chemical arsenal had been removed from Syria.

“A major landmark in this mission has been reached today,” OPCW director general Ahmet Uzumcu said.

The White House lauded the removal of the final batch of deadly agents as an “important milestone.”

"The removal of these materials sends a clear message that the use of these abhorrent weapons has consequences and will not be tolerated by the international community," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.

In a statement, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the removal of the materials was “an outcome that was hard to imagine a year ago.”

The international effort to eliminate the weapons began last year after President Obama asked Congress to authorize military action against Syria, after charging Bashar Assad’s regime with using chemical arms against civilians. The deal on eliminating the weapons was struck with the backing of Russia, a supporter of the regime in Damascus.

However, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said “it is too soon to declare victory, ”citing recent reports that the Assad regime had used “chlorine and barrel bombs” against its citizens.

The Syrian government did not have to declare its stores of chlorine as part of the disarmament deal since the chemical is often used for commercial and domestic purposes.

WATCHDOG: VA IGNORED WHISTLEBLOWERS. Medical inspectors at the veteran Affairs Department routinely dismissed whistleblower concerns about poor medical care and wrongdoing, according to a new federal watchdog report.

U.S. Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner fired off a letter to President Obama and congressional leaders detailing a handful of egregious cases reported to her office, including an instance where one veteran admitted to a VA psychiatric unit waited eight years before receiving his first comprehensive evaluation.

"This approach has prevented the VA from acknowledging the severity of systemic problems and from taking the necessary steps to provide quality care to veterans," wrote Ms. Lerner.

Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said the agency would accept the Office of Special Counsel's recommendations to designate a senior official to look into the whistleblower cases. He also ordered a full review of the VA's Office of Medical Inspector's operation to be completed in two weeks.

Meanwhile, a newly obtained audit performed by the agency’s medical network in the Southwest shows that department officials knew as early as 2012 that employees were tampering with patient data.

 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT:

-Court releases DOJ memo justifying drone strike on US citizen

-Obama: Violence in Afghanistan a concern

-Kerry: Maliki committed to forming new Iraqi government

-Public divided on Obama's approach to Iraq

-Bergdahl shifted to outpatient care

 

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