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May 26, 2016
Notes from the Pentagon

U.S.-backed Iraqis prepare for battle for Fallujah
Iraqi military forces, backed by U.S. air power and Sunni militias, are massing forces in preparation for a major assault on the Islamic State-held city of Fallujah, says Army Col. Steven Warren, the U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad.

The battle for Fallujah, a storied war zone for U.S. Marines who led the bloody fighting there against Iraqis in November and December 2004, is pitting elements of three Iraqi divisions and several thousand militia fighters against an estimated 500 to 600 Islamic State fighters who took over the city in January 2014.

The city, about 36 miles west of Baghdad, has been a stronghold for the Islamic State based on its history as a major redoubt for its predecessor group, al Qaeda in Iraq.

Col. Warren declined to predict when the city would be liberated but said he is confident that the Islamic State will be ousted in the operation. “Fallujah is an important city, and we look forward to its liberation,” he told Inside the Ring.

A new feature of military operations outside Fallujah is that Sunni militias for the first time are coordinating offensive operations against Islamic State fighters. The lightly armed Sunnis, equipped with AK-47s and truck-mounted machine guns, also are slated to play a major role in holding the city and maintaining security once Islamic State fighters are defeated.

Islamic State insurgents have taken civilians as prisoners and are using them as human shields in a bid to discourage air and artillery strikes against key strongholds. The city is estimated to have 50,000 to 70,000 civilians. So far, there are no signs the insurgents are withdrawing in large numbers in advance of an offensive.

The total number of forces is around 20,000 to 33,000 combined Iraqi military and Sunni militia forces who are maneuvering in areas around the city. The main Iraqi military force is based at staging areas west of the city.

Elements of the 10th Iraqi Army Division are working north of the city, and parts of the 8th Iraqi Army Division are clearing areas south of the city.

Additionally, Shiite militia forces are taking part on some operations and have promised not to enter Fallujah, in a bid to ease fears about clashes between rival Sunni and Shiite militias. The battle is expected to be a test of U.S. support for the Iraqi forces and efforts to provide advice and training.

In recent days, at least 31 airstrikes were carried out against insurgents in the city from armed drones and bomber aircraft, Col. Warren said.

The Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE and three related firms were slapped with Commerce Department economic sanctions March 8 for illicit transfers of goods containing U.S.-made products to Iran. But under pressure from China, the department suspended the sanctions on ZTE, a major producer of smartphones and telecommunications hardware, until June 30 and entered talks with the Chinese to try to resolve the dispute.

As part of the scheme, ZTE used the cutout company Beijing 8-Star International to hide the sales.

In addition to ZTE, the sanctioned firms include ZTE Kangxun Telecommunications Ltd., Beijing 8-Star International Co. and ZTE Parsian, a Tehran-based firm.

The sanctions were the result of the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security’s obtaining of an internal ZTE document labeled “Top Secret Highly Confidential,” which showed the company sought to mask its sales of U.S. export-controlled goods by circumventing the Commerce Control List of restricted exports to countries like Iran. The document says the way to carry out that deception is to “maximally detach the direct connection between our company” and the list of controlled items by using shell companies to hide the transactions.

A group of 23 House members on April 27 wrote to Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew urging the sanctions to be reimposed.

“We are concerned that if ZTE is not ultimately punished for its reported misconduct, American export control laws and international efforts to promote human rights in Iran will be weakened,” the lawmakers said, noting that the restrictions on exports to Iran were aimed at preventing Tehran’s ability to spy on dissidents.

The letter also states that a Chinese telecommunications rival of ZTE, referred to in the document as “F7,” has been identified as Huawei Technologies and also has evaded U.S. export controls on its foreign sales.

“As you move forward with your investigation of ZTE, we urge you to publicly identify F7 and impose appropriate penalties on the company should you find evidence of wrongdoing,” they said.

The Paris-based newsletter Intelligence Online reported three years ago that a subsidiary called ZTE Special Equipment Co., which produces intelligence and security equipment, was sold off from the main conglomerate but maintains ties to Chinese intelligence.

ZTESec, as the offshoot company is called, was also renamed SinoVatio around the time the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence was completing its investigation of Huawei’s ties to the Chinese government and military and its relations with ZTE.

“ZTE decided to get rid of the problematic subsidiary so that it could pursue the growth of its business in the U.S.,” the newsletter said.

“However ties between ZTE and SinoVatio remain. The latter company shares the same corporate address — ZTE Plaza, 888 Zhengfang Road, Nanjing — with ZTE Soft, ZTE’s 100 percent-owned research and development unit.”

Additionally, a consortium of private equity funds that purchased 68 percent of ZTESec maintains close ties to Chinese authorities.

SinoVatio’s core businesses are cyberintelligence, cybersecurity and computer network interception. The company also markets network monitoring technology that includes deep-packet inspection, code breaking and data mining. ZTESec sold some $100 million worth of electronic intercept equipment to Iran in December 2010, Intelligence Online reported.

Amid frequent run-ins between Russian fighter jets and U.S. surveillance aircraft over Europe and Asia, Russia last week accused the pilot of a U.S. Air Force RC-135 jet of flying unsafely over the East Sea/Sea of Japan.

The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement issued Monday that it had summoned a U.S. military attache in Moscow over the incident in the sea May 22.

“The U.S. military official was informed that the Russian air defenses detected on May 22 a U.S. RC-135 plane carrying out a reconnaissance mission over the Sea of Japan close to the Russian air space,” the statement said. “The U.S. plane was flying with switched-off transponder without agreeing its flight plan with regional air traffic control services. The plane used flight echelons allocated for regular flights by civilian aircraft.”

The statement, reported by the state-run Sputnik news service, said U.S. military flights near Russian borders near Kaliningrad, on the Baltic Sea, had been detected eight times over the past two weeks. Last week, an RC-135 was intercepted by a Russian Su-27 over the Baltic Sea.

A U.S. defense official dismissed the Russian charge, saying the aircraft was conducting a routine mission and that jets normally operate without using transponders.

On April 21, a Russian MiG-31 flew within 50 feet of a U.S. Navy P-8 maritime patrol aircraft near the Kamchatka Peninsula, the Pentagon said.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz. Staff writer Rowan Scarborough contributed to this report.

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