US retreats in Iraq; USAF helo takes fire over Virginia; Naval standoff between NATO allies; COVID deaths hit 3-month high; and a bit more...

U.S. troops retreat in Iraq. “We’ve had to pull back,” said Gen. Frank McKenzie, saying for the first time that the months-long consolidation of U.S. forces on a handful of bases in the country reflects not just a desire to hand remote outposts over to Iraqi forces but also an effort to get away from Iran-backed Shiite militias. 

“Rocket attacks have continued to target U.S. military and diplomatic installations in Iraq during the spring and summer,” reports Defense One’s Katie Bo Williams, on the general’s virtual appearance with the U.S. Institute of Peace. 

McKenzie, who leads U.S. Central Command, said that in the wake of drawdowns ordered earlier this year by President Donald Trump, the remaining U.S. troops cannot at the moment pursue ISIS. The new focus: Iran.

But on Facebook…almost daily it seems like CENTCOM-aided Iraqi’s are capturing alleged terrorists, weapons caches, and homemade bombs. CENTCOM’s most recent press release highlights those “by, with, through”-style operations as they are posted to the Iraqi’s Ministry of Interior’s page. 

“We can get the job done with fewer U.S. forces in Iraq,” McKenzie said in a separate exclusive interview with Voice of America’s Pentagon reporter Carla Babb, on Wednesday. McKenzie credited the Iraqis for being “very aggressive and very helpful,” as U.S. troop numbers declined. VOA reports the total number of American troops in Iraq is between 5,000 and 6,000. 

But if more isn’t done to de-radicalize ISIS prisoners in Syria, then in 10 to 15 years, “We're going to do this all over again,” McKenzie warned, during the USIP call. “And I would prefer to avoid that.” More on that at Stars and Stripes

And in Afghanistan: “Right now, it is simply unclear to me that the Taliban has taken any positive steps.”

Still no Russian-bounty proof, but they’re “still digging,” McKenzie said. “It is very worrisome, it's very concerning, but it's not proven to my satisfaction that it actually occurred.” Babb has posted a helpful edited transcript of her interview, here.

Nearly 1,500 Americans died of the coronavirus on Wednesday, the highest daily toll since mid-May and a signal that “that America does not have the pandemic under control despite stabilizing case numbers,” the Washington Post reported.

Trump pushes for more interaction: “We’ve got to open up our schools and open up our businesses” and hold a college football season, he said at a Wednesday evening news conference at the White House. “Let them play.” More, here.

Report: COVID research has been poorly coordinated, thanks to the systemic incentives that govern U.S. medical research and the lack of federal intervention to get hospitals and researchers working together on the truly important questions. Wired reports, here.

By the numbers: more than 5.2 million U.S. cases, nearly 166,000 deaths, per the New York Times’ tracker.

From Defense One

Iran Is Our Top Priority, Says Senior US Commander In Middle East // Katie Bo Williams: Shiite military attacks have made it harder to fight ISIS, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie said.

The Military Won’t Save Us – and You Shouldn’t Want Them To // Kori Schake and Jim Golby: It’s deeply irresponsible, not to mention organizationally nonsensical, to suggest that Gen. Milley should evict an election-losing Trump from the White House.

Let the Pride Flag Fly // Luke Schleusener: Secretary Esper ’s clever rule that bans the Confederate flag needs a fix. Here’s how he can bring real equality to the Defense Department.

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief from Bradley Peniston and Kevin Baron. Send us tips from your community right here. And if you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here.

Air Force Huey shot at, crew northern Virginia. An Air Force UH-1N helicopter flying over a suburb of Washington, D.C., was hit by gunfire on Wednesday. The pilot made an emergency landing at Manassas Regional Airport at 12:43 pm and was injured, according to multiple reports. The bird is part of 1st Helicopter Squadron at Joint Base Andrews. The FBI and the Air Force Office of Special Investigations are investigating. According to Air Force Times, an airport manager said a crewmember was treated for a bleeding hand. 

Not that low. “The aircraft was about 10 miles northwest of the airport, near Middleburg, Virginia, and was flying about 1,000 feet above the ground,” reports Task & Purpose.

Was it the noise? Just last week, the Washington Post reported that local area members of Congress are asking for a law requiring the Pentagon to track noise complaints from military and civilian helicopters around the city, which have spiked recently. “The report found that airspace in the National Capital Region is “is one of the busiest and most restrictive in the United States” and noted that at least 21 entities, including the U.S. Park Police, MedStar hospital and private charter services, fly helicopters in and around D.C. In addition to three major airports, the region is home to three military airfields: Joint Base Andrews, Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling’s heliport and Fort Belvoir’s Davison Army Airfield. According to the report, Joint Base Andrews averages 190 mainly helicopter operations a day while Davison averages 115 mainly helicopter operations a day.”

Remember the heat in Baghdad? It’s even hotter. “Iraq isn’t just hot. It’s punishingly hot. Record-breakingly hot,” so writes WaPo’s Louisa Loveluck and Chris Mooney in this “troubling snapshot of the future” detailing how climate change is turning the frying pan into a fire. “Baghdad hit 125.2 degrees on July 28, blowing past the previous record of 123.8 degrees — which was set here five years ago — and topping 120 degrees for four days in a row.” More here.

What does 125 degrees feel like? “The suitcase crackled as it was unzipped. It turned out that the synthetic fibers of a headscarf had melted crispy and were now stuck to the top of the case. A cold bottle of water was suddenly warm to the lips. At our office, the door handle was so hot it left blisters at the touch.” If the world doesn’t change its climate-changing habits, by 2050 Phoenix, Ariz., could be as hot as Baghdad, according to one study. (Last month, NBC News reported the “feels like” temp reached 159 degrees.) 

What is life like? Street vendors can’t sell their goods. The power grid is straining. Farmers are losing crops. Most citizens can’t afford a generator to keep cool. And already-deadly protests are getting worse. “The heat is ruining livelihoods, and power cuts have been compounding a sense of misery so deep that protesters are streaming into the streets to demand better services, even risking the threat of live ammunition from ill-disciplined security forces.” 

Trump admits he’s trying to depress mail-in voting, which has been used by thousands of U.S. troops for decades and which helps citizens vote safely amid the pandemic and conveniently despite the GOP-led closure of hundreds of polling places

In recent months, the president has been vastly exaggerating the potential for fraud in mailed ballots, even suggesting that the election should be delayed rather than use this tried-and-true method. On Wednesday, Trump explicitly tied his refusal to free up emergency funds for the U.S. Postal Service to the upcoming election. “They don’t have the money to do the universal mail-in voting. So therefore, they can’t do it, I guess,” he said. “Are they going to do it even if they don’t have the money?”

For the record: “Despite [a] dramatic increase in mail voting over time, fraud rates remain infinitesimally small,” the Brennan Center says. “None of the five states that hold their elections primarily by mail has had any voter fraud scandals since making that change.”

Protests rage in Belarus as arrests climb into the thousands. “Some 7,000 people have been detained and you don't have to be protesting to be arrested,” reports the BBC’s Tatsiana Melnichuk from Minsk, where citizens have been in the streets since the weekend, when the country’s leader claimed victory in an internationally-disputed election. Read, here.

ICYMI: Why The Future of Belarus Matters to the United States,” by D1’s Patrick Tucker. The protests and violent crackdown in Minsk will reshape Russian and Western decision-making for years. Read, here.

Bob Woodward? Uh oh... Guess who is about to drop a new book with insidery details of the Trump White House that Beltway denizens already are salivating about? The Watergate legend has written a follow-up to his first book about the current administration, Fear, to be released on Sept. 15, according to its Amazon blurb. The title: Rage.

Love letters from Kim. “Woodward obtained 25 personal letters exchanged between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that have not been public before. Kim describes the bond between the two leaders as out of a ‘fantasy film,’ as the two leaders engage in an extraordinary diplomatic minuet.” 

What else? “According to multiple sources, the book has explosive accounts of Trump's thoughts and actions on national security, the coronavirus pandemic, the economic collapse and the Black Lives Matter protests,” CNN first reported.

Trump talked, this time. Recall that when Fear came out, the president was upset Woodward did not interview him first. Woodward said he requested an interview several times, but Trump’s staff never brought it to the president. Trump said in January that the two men spoke. More on that from The Guardian

Report: Congress has halted U.S. arms exports to Turkey. “Four key members of Congress, either individually or collectively, have quietly frozen all major U.S. arms sales to Turkey for nearly two years in a move to pressure Ankara to abandon its Russian-built S-400 air defense system,” Defense News reported Wednesday.

Meanwhile, in the Med: In an extraordinary standoff between NATO allies, France and Greece have sent military ships and aircraft to block Turkey from oil exploration in the Mediterranean they say is illegal. France’s Defense Minister Florence Parly called it a “freedom of navigation,” she tweeted Thursday. And France’s President Emannuel Macron tweeted: “The situation in the eastern Mediterranean is worrying. Turkey's unilateral decisions on oil exploration are causing tensions. These must end in order to allow a peaceful dialogue between neighboring countries and allies within NATO.”

Off the coast of Crete: “On Thursday, the French armed forces ministry said it was sending two Rafale fighter jets and the naval frigate Lafayette to the eastern Mediterranean,” per Reuters. That report says Turkey sent a scientific ship into waters between Crete and Cyprus soon after Greece and Egypt declared an “exclusive economic zone.” 

Lastly today: A Navy warship has hauled WWII warbirds from San Diego to Hawaii for commemorations of the 75th anniversary of the war’s end. Military Times has that story, and some great photos of a B-25 Mitchell bomber being lifted from the deck of the amphibious assault ship Essex.