Hormuz heats up; An anti-war candidate; Tracking the Taliban 5; Thornberry spooks Iraqis; And a bit more.

Houthi rebels launched a cross-border attack in Saudi Arabia’s southern Najran province overnight, killing three Saudi soldiers before airstrikes let loose, killing “dozens” of Houthis, AP reports this morning from Riyadh. More on Yemen below.

The U.S. Navy is “accompanying” American-flagged ships through the Strait of Hormuz in a vigorous response to Iran’s seizure this week of the Maersk Tigris cargo freighter, our own Brad Peniston reports. “Accompanying is basically a step down from escorting,” a defense official explained. “The U.S. Navy ships will be in the same general area as the U.S.-flagged merchant vessels and are there to ensure a safe flow of maritime traffic in the Strait of Hormuz.” CNN first reported that this new effort “specifically requires an armed warship to be in the narrow channel between Iran and Oman when a U.S. commercial vessel passes through.”

The Republican version of the defense authorization bill has shaken up Iraqis fearful the U.S. wants to break up the country into Shiastan, Sunnistan and Kurdistan regions, The New York Times’ Tim Arango reports from Baghdad. Despite the plan’s “limited chances for survival,” Arango writes the entire episode highlights the “American struggle to retain influence in Iraq.” Iraqi outrage boiled over to the point that the U.S. embassy in Baghdad felt obliged to release a statement to local media that the U.S. foreign policy buck stops with the president, not Congress.
“A spokesman for Representative Mac Thornberry, a Texas Republican and the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, which drafted the plan, said that the intent was not to interfere with Iraq’s sovereignty. But he did not back away from the idea, which calls for Iraqi Kurds and Sunnis each to be deemed a ‘country’ to comply with American laws on direct military aid.”
Nevertheless, it’s clear Iraqi concerns about national unity aren’t likely to go away as Kurdistan’s President Massud Barzani arrives in Washington for a weeklong visit with U.S. officials that begins this Sunday.

From Defense One

Vermont’s Sen. Bernie Sanders took a few thinly-veiled swipes at Hillary Clinton yesterday as he launched an “unabashedly independent, anti-interventionist campaign” for the White House, politics editor Molly O’Toole writes.

Foreign militaries could soon have private data about U.S. citizens and companies thanks to an information-sharing bill on Capitol Hill that ties into the Pentagon’s new cyber security strategy, explains tech editor Patrick Tucker.

Have months of antagonistic long-range patrols suddenly broken Russia’s air force? That’s one concern from NATO Commander Gen. Philip Breedlove, who says Moscow’s long-range aviation missions near Europe are finally on the decline more than year after its annexation of Crimea. Marcus Weisgerber has more.

The U.S. Air Force, with a bit of help from NASA, could soon have a shape-shifting plane, Quartz’s Adam Epstein reports.

Forget Borat, get to know the real Kazakhstan—and why politics in Washington could ruin a perfectly good chance to create the world’s fifth nuclear-free zone, in Central Asia. That via Ploughshare Fund’s Joe Cirincione and Faris Alikhan.
In fact, a nuclear deal with Iran looks acceptable when you consider the alternatives, and ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, does that and more in this “Skeptic’s Guide to the Iran Deal” with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg.

ICYMI—Fightin’ words edition, with Arkansas freshman Senator Tom Cotton. The media darling tried his hand at some hardline diplomacy with Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on Wednesday -- on Twitter. National Journal’s Marina Koren explains.

Welcome to Friday's edition of The D Brief, from Ben Watson and Defense One. If you'd like to subscribe, click here or drop us a line at the-d-brief@defenseone.com. If you want to view The D Brief in your browser, you can do that, here.

Iran sent two warships to the Gulf of Aden yesterday to protect its own commercial ships after Saudi jets prevented an Iranian plane from landing in Yemen’s capital of Sana’a, AFP reports.
Catch video of the midair intercept, via The Aviationist’s David Cenciotti.
More than 1,200 have died in Yemen and another 300,000 have reportedly fled their homes since late March, according to the UN, which warned all relief operations for the crisis in Yemen could grind to a halt any day now due to a desperate lack of fuel and food in the country.

In Djibouti, America’s counterterrorism hub in the Horn of Africa--including for Yemen operations--is almost entirely dependent on an inept, shoddy crew of Djiboutian civilian air traffic controllers, The Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock reported yesterday after a bit of FOIA digging. “The documents chronicle an ill-fated $7 million U.S. program in which former Federal Aviation Administration officials were tapped to retrain the Djiboutian air-traffic controllers in 2012 and 2013. The effort collapsed after the Djiboutians stopped showing up for classes and locked the American trainers out of the flight tower.”
And today, U.S. Special Operations Command chief, Gen. Joseph Votel, talks at the Stimson Center at 12:30 p.m. RSVP here.

The U.S. and Qatar began talks yesterday on how to continue monitoring the “Taliban 5” who were released from Guantanamo in last year’s exchange for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. The one-year arrangement with Doha is set to expire at the end of the month, though WaPo’s Missy Ryan and Karen DeYoung report that deal could be extended.
Speaking of Doha—Qatar just bought 24 Rafale fighter jets from France, DefenseNews’ Pierre Tran reports.
And France just increased its defense spending by more than $4 billion over the next four years, in part to help cover the costs of the uber-conflict across the Middle East and Africa. VOA’s Lisa Bryant has that one.

China’s navy chief yesterday struck a conciliatory tone with his U.S. counterpart, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert, over Beijing’s island-dredging in the South China Sea. Adm. Wu Shengli told the CNO in a video conference call that the artificial islands could be used for joint rescue and disaster relief operations and that the facilities will not affect freedom of movement in the region. More from The Wall Street Journal’s Jeremy Page.
Meantime in Nepal, the Pentagon sent another almost two dozen members of a Joint Humanitarian Assistance Survey Team to the country whose death toll from Saturday’s quake has risen above 6,000.

More than two dozen Taliban were killed by Afghan border police early this morning while trying to overrun an outpost in southeastern Khost province, Afghanistan’s Pajhwok News reports this morning. The attack continues the Taliban’s aggressive start to its annual fighting season, which kicked off last week and escalated with intense fighting in the northern province of Kunduz earlier this week.

The women enduring the Army’s first integrated Ranger school have discovered more than just a chance to make history—they’re earning respect from the men alongside them. Christian Science Monitor’s Anna Mulrine has more from Fort Benning, Ga.

Your weekend #LongRead: Newsweek just released their cover story for the May issue where Jeff Stein and Jonathan Broder consider if America’s military power is overstretched. It’s a wide-ranging look at the U.S. military that spans past and future, from the lessons of Rome’s defeat in the Teutoburg Forest, to the foray in Vietnam, and finally to ISIS and Vladimir Putin today.

Blame the goat—or the command climate. The Navy on Monday fired the commanding officer of the cruiser Lake Erie for, among other reasons, bringing a goat from Hawaii to San Diego in violation of California law. Navy Times’ David Larter has the story of the pygmy goat, Master Chief Charlie, and the newly-sunk Capt. John Banigan.