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News Brief: GOP Relations, Iraqi Forces Launch Kirkuk Operation


Oh, to be a fly on the wall at the White House today.


Yeah, if only. Rachel, President Trump is having lunch with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell today. And their relationship is, well, complicated. Here is Trump evaluating McConnell after the big failure on repeal and replace.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I was not impressed. Now, can he do good? I think so.

GREENE: OK - so showing some faith in the majority leader there. When they meet today, the two men will definitely discuss getting a tax overhaul done. If Republicans fall short on that second big promise, how much trouble are they in, as the midterm elections start to loom pretty large?

MARTIN: Let's ask Scott Detrow. He hosts NPR's POLITICS Podcast. He's with us in the studio. Good morning, Scott.


MARTIN: The president kind of went his own way last week, took a series of executive actions on things like health care and Iran. Presumably, that is to demonstrate that he does not need so much this particular Congress.

DETROW: Yeah. President Trump is someone who is always eager to show results, whether or not the results are fully there. Remember, he at one point held an event that looked like a bill signing, when he was really just transmitting a message to Congress saying, hey, I want you to act on this certain thing. He often talks about how he signed more bills than any other president at this point, when that is not actually the case. But executive orders are a way to show you're making progress. But they have a limited shelf life, as we're seeing with President Trump right now. He has rolled back order after order after order that President Obama put in place. The next president, if it's a Democrat, could presumably do all of this to all of Trump's orders.

MARTIN: But the president absolutely needs Mitch McConnell, especially for tax reform, right?

DETROW: Absolutely.

MARTIN: He can't just executive action his way around Congress on that.

DETROW: Yeah. I think health care is - the attempt to repeal Obamacare - is a perfect example of why the president and his party's majorities have to work with each other. Health care was by and large an effort that the White House stayed kind of not fully involved in. President Trump wasn't out there doing campaign rallies, wasn't out there trying to put public pressure on key votes, other than tweets here or there. And that's one reason why it came up short.

MARTIN: So do we presume that he's going to have - he's going to be more involved in tax reform, the president?

DETROW: That's the indication. And you have seen him hold several public rallies on the tax issue that was mostly focused on tax reform, not just talking about it here and there. And he's strategically done that in several states where there are vulnerable Democrats up for re-election next year. The thought is that Republicans might be able to get a handful of Democrats to vote for this, as well.

MARTIN: So while the president is reaching out to Mitch McConnell, reaching out to the leader of the so-called Republican establishment, Trump's own former presidential adviser Steve Bannon is trying to blow the whole thing up from the outside. So what's Bannon's play here? Is he on the president's side?

DETROW: It seems like a real short-term gain, long-term loss approach because if you blame all the failures so far on congressional Republicans, that isolates President Trump and keeps his approval rating, keeps the energy up for him when it comes to the base. It's hard to see the strategy for next year with that. If you're telling Republican voters, hey, the problem here is congressional Republicans, that's a hard argument to get them to show up at the midterms...


DETROW: ...And vote for those Republicans.

MARTIN: Yeah. We should say Bannon is leading this push to support all these further right candidates against mainstream Republican candidates. And he talked about it at the Value Voter Summit a few days ago. OK. NPR's Scott Detrow, thanks so much for your time this morning.

DETROW: Thank you.

MARTIN: All right. Over the past few years, two crucial allies have helped the U.S. fight ISIS in Iraq.

GREENE: Yeah. Those allies are the Iraqi army and the other Kurdish Peshmerga forces. But this is a very complicated part of the world. And now those two groups are fighting one another. The Kurds want their own state. They held a referendum last month. Iraq's government rejects that referendum. And now the Iraqi army, which is backed by Iran, is assaulting the Kurdish-held city of Kirkuk. Big question is, could this blow up into a civil war?

MARTIN: Very big question. Let's put it to Fazel Hawramy. He's a journalist. We're reaching him on his cell phone in Iraq. Fazel, thanks for being here.

FAZEL HAWRAMY: You're welcome.

MARTIN: Fazel, why is the Iraqi government doing this right now?

HAWRAMY: Well, for the last three years, the Peshmerga forces have been fighting the Islamic State. The Iraqi army has been fighting the Islamic State. And the Iraqi central government is using a referendum that the Kurds held on the 25 of September for independence - they're using that as an excuse to retake the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. They started their offenses last night.


HAWRAMY: The Shiite ministers, the Iraqi army and various forces have trapped the Peshmerga forces in and around Kirkuk from several fronts. And apparently, many people inside Kirkuk - the civilians - have taken up arms. And they want to defend their city. And this situation is pretty - escalating out of control.

MARTIN: OK. Let me just repeat what you've said because it is such a rough line. You're saying that the Iraqi security forces are taking advantage of this moment because the Kurds did just have this independence vote that would clearly be a risk to the sovereignty of Iraq as a country. And the security forces are attacking Kirkuk. Obviously, it's an oil-rich city. And you're saying civilians are taking up arms. I mean, Fazel, this has been long brewing. Kurds have wanted an independent state for generations. So how does this ever get resolved? I mean, we've got now this conflagration in this moment. But even if it's tamped down, this is not an issue that's going to go away.

HAWRAMY: Absolutely. I mean, the ultimate aim of the Kurdish people is to have their own independent state. But the Kurdish authorities have said that they want to do this through dialogue with Baghdad. And they said that the 25 of September referendum was the expression of the will of the Kurdish people. And they repeatedly said that doesn't mean that they're going to declare an independent Kurdistan that they asked to be in the referendum. And they want to have dialogue with the central government.

But the - what the central government has done for the last three years that the Kurds have helped the Iraqi forces to fight ISIS - losing around 1,800 Peshmerga. And 81,000 Peshmerga have been wounded. They've been helping the Iraqi army to do this. And now that the Iraqi army is strong with the help of the anti-ISIS coalition - the U.S.-led coalition - they've taken this opportunity to take the fight to Kirkuk and the Peshmerga forces. And today I spoke to people inside one of the hospitals. And there were around 40 Peshmerga wounded in the hospital being treated. There are around...


HAWRAMY: ...Probably over 10 Peshmerga dead...

MARTIN: And so...

HAWRAMY: ...As a result of the fighting.

MARTIN: So we're seeing casualties on both sides. This is obviously a story that is rapidly developing. Fazel Hawramy - he's a journalist. We've reached him on his cell phone from Iraq, talking about the battle in Kirkuk that is underway. Thank you so much for your time this morning.

HAWRAMY: My pleasure.

MARTIN: So Kurds in Iraq want independence. So do many people in Catalonia.

GREENE: That's right. And in a referendum earlier this month, Catalans voted to separate from Spain. The region's president, though, said not so fast and proposed dialogue with Madrid before fully breaking away. So Spain put him on a deadline ending today. Basically, you've got to decide now - have you declared independence, or haven't you? And he seems to have ignored that deadline.

MARTIN: All right. We need help breaking this down. We called up journalist Lucia Benavides. Lucia, thanks for being with us.


MARTIN: This was supposed to be a simple yes or no, right? Did you, Catalan leader, declare independence, or did you not? And what did the president say, exactly?

BENAVIDES: Right. So the president did not directly answer that question. Basically, he addressed a letter to Spain's prime minister, where he did not declare independence. But he asked that the two governments meet as soon as possible to open up a dialogue over the next two months. And on Saturday, Spain's interior minister had said that the central government would invoke Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution if it did not get a clear answer from the Catalan government. And so what this article...

MARTIN: What does that - yeah. What does that article mean?

BENAVIDES: Yeah. What it means is that it would suspend Catalonia's autonomy. So the Spanish government would take over politically. It would throw out of office the current Catalan government. It would temporarily replace the government with Spanish officials. And it would also replace the local Catalan police force with the Spanish national police. And then...

MARTIN: That clearly is not moving the Catalan leader.

BENAVIDES: Right. Right. And so - and this is obviously the last thing that people in Catalonia want because they want more autonomy, not less autonomy. And we actually just heard back some minutes ago from Spain's deputy prime minister, responding to the letter that the Catalan president had addressed to the central government. She said that, from their perspective, the Catalan government did not provide an accurate response to Spain's request on whether or not the region had declared independence. And because of that, they are moving forward with invoking this Article 155. And unless, you know, they back away from independence by Thursday, Catalonia's autonomy may be suspended for...

MARTIN: Will be stripped.

BENAVIDES: Yeah, we don't know how long.

MARTIN: So we've got another deadline, it looks like. We'll be having this conversation again in a couple of days.


MARTIN: Meanwhile, the people of Catalan and Spain wait to see what is going to happen. Lucia Benavides - she is a freelance journalist in Barcelona talking to us on Skype this morning. Lucia, thanks so much.

BENAVIDES: Thank you.