With Iraq closing a last minute deal with Russia to reinforce its depleted airforce by purchasing second-hand Su fighter jets, suddenly the US found itself scrambling: the last thing it wants is to hand over control of Iraq's skies to foreign-made warplanes. Which is perhaps why as CBS just reported, a Pentagon official has officially confirmed that the US is now flying armed drones over Baghdad. "The flights, which are not round the clock, are for the protection of the embassy and are not the precursor to air strikes" according to the same source.
So despite its reticence to engage in yet another Iraqi war, the US has now sent not only "military experts" but is once again doing what it does best: killing people by remote control. Not only that, but the people it (supposedly) intends to kill (for protection purposes of course) are the same Jihadist militants which Obama just requested another $500 million to equip and train. Because if you can't find enough support for a limited regional war, the next best thing is to wage a proxy war... against yourself. And since the US military industrial complex is arming both sides, it is a win-win once again for any neo-con interests.
In other Iraqi news, the days of the current PM Maliki, who has now burned all bridges with the US, appear numbered after Iraq's top Shiite cleric - Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani - on Friday called on political blocs to agree on the next prime minister before the newly elected parliament sits next week, stepping up pressure on political leaders to set aside their differences and form an inclusive government in the face of Sunni militants who have seized large swaths of territory. However, from a geopolitical perspective this opens up a new can of worms: since the new PM will certainly be even more pro-US in a country in which Russia has invested generously to build out its oil infrastructure, this means that Putin will likely have to intercede once again to make sure the new PM is just as agreeable to Russian interests as the current one. Which also means that a whole lot of money is being spent behind the scenes.
The reclusive al-Sistani, the most revered figure among Iraqi Shiites, rarely appears or speaks in public, instead delivering messages through other clerics or, less frequently, issuing edicts.
Prominent Shiite leaders are pushing for the removal of al-Maliki, whose bloc won the most seats in April's elections - 92 out of the legislature's 328 - but who has been widely accused of monopolizing power and alienating Sunnis with a heavy-handed response to years of militant violence.
Even al-Maliki's most important ally, neighboring Iran, is said to be looking at alternatives.
According to Reuters, a western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, predicted that Maliki was now done.
“It looks like the debate is whether it is going to be Tareq Najem from inside State of law or someone from outside Maliki's alliance," the diplomat said, referring to Maliki's one-time chief of staff and a senior member of his Dawa party.
"It is generally understood it will not be Maliki," the diplomat said. "Security was his big thing, and he failed."
Allies of Maliki said Sistani's call for a quick decision was not aimed at sidelining the premier, but at putting pressure on all political parties not to draw out the process with infighting as the country risks disintegration.
Meanwhile, on the military front, a senior Iraqi army official told The Associated Press that Iraqi commandos aboard four helicopters landed at a soccer pitch inside a university campus in the insurgent-held city of Tikrit late Thursday and clashed with militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant for several hours.
One of the helicopters developed mechanical problems after takeoff from Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad, but landed safely in the provincial military headquarters. The official had no word on casualties and declined to specify the mission's objectives. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.
The official also said 200 troops have arrived at a key refinery north of Baghdad under attack by militants for more than a week. The reinforcing troops join a 100-strong contingent that has been defending the Beiji refinery, Iraq's largest and the source of about a quarter of the country's oil product needs, including fuel for power stations.
Finally, for the visual learners, here is the latest Iraqi situation report from the Institute for the Study of War