Hundreds of Iraqi protesters march in Baghdad ahead of vote

Hundreds of Iraqi protesters march in Baghdad ahead of vote

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Protesters hold posters of protesters who have been killed in anti-government demonstrations during anti-Government protest in Tahrir Square, Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, Oct. 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban) more >

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By Associated Press –

Friday, October 1, 2021

BAGHDAD (AP) – Hundreds of Iraqis marched in the center of Baghdad on Friday to mark two years since mass anti-government protests erupted in the Iraqi capital and southern provinces calling for reforms.

Around 1,000 protesters took part in the event, including a significant number of women, many carrying photos of loved ones who were killed by security forces during the protests. The commemoration comes a week before Iraq plans to hold early elections, which had been a key demand of tens of thousands of protesters who thronged the streets and public squares from October 2019 until early 2020.

Demonstrators, mostly young people, had camped out in the capital’s Tahrir Square for months, decrying endemic corruption, poor services and unemployment.

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The movement petered out owing to the government’s heavy-handed response and the coronavirus pandemic. Over 600 people died as security forces used live ammunition and tear gas to disperse crowds.

Now, many among the protest movement are calling for a boycott of the elections scheduled for Oct. 10, convinced that nothing will change. They are protesting, in particular, a string of targeted killings against civil society groups and outspoken activists for which no one has been held accountable. The killings have created a climate of fear and widespread reluctance to take part in the voting, particularly among young Iraqis who constitute the largest group of voters in Iraq.

“I am against participating in these elections because they are meaningless. It’s the same parties in power and nothing will change,” said Walid al-Madani, a 39-year-old civil servant taking part in Friday’s protest.

Hundreds of riot police and federal policemen fanned out in Baghdad ahead of the planned march.

“We don’t want a paradise, we want a nation,” read one of the banners carried by protesters who gathered Friday at Fardous Square and marched toward Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the October 2019 protests.

Another banner read: “You will not silence the voice of Tishreen,” Arabic for October, as Iraqis refer to the protests after the month they broke out.

‘Fundamental shift’ in post-9/11 era shifted trillions of dollars to major defense firms

‘Fundamental shift’ in post-9/11 era shifted trillions of dollars to major defense firms

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By Ben Wolfgang

The Washington Times

Sunday, September 19, 2021

The post-9/11 era brought permanent changes to U.S. military strategy.

For defense contractors, it also sparked a significant cash windfall as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and conflicts in other hot spots in the Middle East and beyond, funneled trillions of dollars away from the rank-and-file military and toward profit-driven companies.

That reality has fueled questions about whether the Pentagon has become too reliant on private industry for critical missions, potentially opening holes in national security and even compromising the world’s greatest military, some critics say.

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As defense spending exploded in the 2000s, so too did the profits of defense firms. Of the $14 trillion in total Defense Department spending since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, at least one-third has gone to contractors, according to a recent study published by the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University and the Center for International Policy.

At least $4.4 trillion was spent on weapons purchases and research and development, and the vast majority flowed to well-known defense firms such as Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. Private-sector companies have assumed an irreplaceable role atop the U.S. war-fighting machine. Long-term deals and service contracts for weapons, vehicles and other military tools make it difficult, if not virtually impossible, to shrink that role.

Analysts and defense insiders say the shift has accelerated in the past two decades. Ten years earlier, defense companies began searching for new services to provide and other avenues to make money as the threat of a U.S.-Soviet world war faded away.

“There’s been a fundamental shift. I think that shift goes back to the ‘90s,” said Michael Brenes, a Yale University historian who studies the defense industry.

“The end of the Cold War brought a crisis point. There’s a period of crisis, or concern, for the defense industry and for defense contractors overall,” he said. “There’s no more Cold War, and they’re concerned about profitability in the long run and where they can go to obtain further profits.”

The landscape changed before arriving at the post-9/11 partnership between the Pentagon and industry. In many ways, the military now can call on companies to do virtually everything except fight the war itself.

“To me, there is no discernible line beyond the fact that the use of kinetic force is primarily under the purview of officers of the Marine Corps, the Army, the military,” Mr. Brenes said.

Industry leaders largely attribute the rapid expansion of the defense industrial base to better personnel management at the Defense Department. Military leaders, they say, zeroed in on the best, most efficient ways to use highly trained soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.

“There was a shift. … Post 9/11, you got into a new paradigm,” said retired Air Force Col. Wesley Hallman, now the senior vice president of strategy and policy at the National Defense Industrial Association.

In years past, he said, “DoD could just throw people at the problem. People didn’t cost a lot. They were, frankly, cheap.”

Service members sometimes painted buildings and performed landscaping and other jobs for which highly trained military women and men were essentially overqualified.

“You never see that anymore because of … the skills that we demand out of them in the military, the all-volunteer force,” Mr. Hallman said. “We’ve invested a lot into it, and they’re not cheap. We’ve developed a system that we retain people and their skills. We retain the investments. Because of that, they’re not cheap.”

Money and controversy

Indeed, while most media attention over the past 20 years centered on contractors with firms such as Blackwater that provided armed security in war zones, the vast majority of industry work in-theater was much more routine.

Many logistical duties related to food, housing, infrastructure and other domains fell to defense contractors. For short-term missions, officials and analysts say, it can make sense for service members to handle relatively mundane tasks. But if the U.S. intends to maintain a large presence for any considerable time, as it did in Iraq and Afghanistan, outsourcing jobs to private industry makes sense, specialists generally agree, assuming that the civilian contractors are kept safe and don’t hinder the military mission.

Critics say the involvement of more individuals and companies in military missions dramatically increases opportunities for waste and fraud.

“The Pentagon’s increasing reliance on private contractors in the post-9/11 period raises multiple questions of accountability, transparency, and effectiveness,” reads a portion of the Brown University study, authored by William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy.

“This is problematic because privatizing key functions can reduce the U.S. military’s control of activities that occur in war zones while increasing risks of waste, fraud and abuse,” the study says. “Additionally, that the waging of war is a source of profits can contradict the goal of having the U.S. lead with diplomacy in seeking to resolve conflicts.”

Large defense firms have played central roles in the U.S. military for more than a century, but the money flowing to those companies today is staggering.

From 2001 to 2020, the five leading Pentagon weapons contractors — Raytheon, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman — pulled in $2.1 trillion in defense contracts, according to the Brown University study.

Those companies are often targets on Capitol Hill for the outsized roles they play in national security, but they provide weapons and vehicles, not armed personnel in war zones.

In the years after 9/11, security firms essentially redefined the role of a defense contractor. Blackwater provided security and other services in Afghanistan and Iraq and was viewed by critics as a mercenary American force not bound by the same rules that applied to the military.

“This is the greater problem for how the DoD has relied on private contractors — that they’re unaccountable,” Mr. Brenes said.

Industry officials, however, say security contractors are bound by military rules of engagement and subject to commanders on the ground.

Blackwater gained much of its notoriety after a September 2007 incident in Baghdad’s Nisour Square, where four Blackwater employees were convicted of killing more than a dozen Iraqi civilians. The Blackwater employees said they were defending a U.S. military convoy.

President Trump pardoned all four in December.

Taliban success in Afghanistan seen as boost for extremists

Taliban success in Afghanistan seen as boost for extremists

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Members of the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, a Sunni Islamist militant group, wave the Taliban flags as they celebrate the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, in the city of Idlib, Friday, Aug. 20, 2021. The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan is giving radical … more >

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By Zeina Karam

Associated Press

Friday, August 27, 2021

BEIRUT (AP) – A few days after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, a convoy of militants drove through the city of Idlib in northwestern Syria in cars bearing the group’s white-and-black flags, honking horns and firing their guns in the air.

The celebrations by an al-Qaida affiliate in a remote corner of war-torn Syria were an expression of the triumph felt by radical Islamic groups from the Gaza Strip to Pakistan and West Africa who see America’s violence-marred exit from Afghanistan an opportunity to reassert their presence.

For such groups, the chaotic U.S. departure following the collapse of security forces it had trained for two decades is a gift, underlining their message that Washington eventually abandons its allies, and that defeating powerful armies is possible with enough patience.

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“The success of the Taliban opens the way for radical groups to step up their recruitment operations globally. It is much easier for them now, and there is more receptivity,” said Hassan Abu Haniyeh, an expert on Islamic militants based in Amman, Jordan.

Despite the billions of dollars spent by the U.S. and NATO over nearly 20 years to build up Afghan security forces, the Taliban seized nearly all of Afghanistan in just over a week amid the U.S. troop pullout. The fundamentalist group swept into Kabul on Aug. 15 after the government collapsed and embattled President Ashraf Ghani fled the country.

Since then, tens of thousands of people desperate to escape a country governed by the Taliban have been trying to flee or already have been evacuated in a mammoth Western airlift.

“The events unfolding in Afghanistan have given jihadi groups and U.S. adversaries reason to celebrate, and America’s allies in the region reason to feel anxious,” said Abu Haniyeh. “They now feel that America might drop them one day, same as it did the government of Ashraf Ghani.”

There are concerns that Afghanistan will once again become a base for militants to plot against the West, much like the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that triggered the U.S. invasion.

“This is the story that is going to impact and influence jihadi fighters around the globe for the next decade, the same way as the victory over the Soviets in Afghanistan in the ‘80s inspired the jihadis around the world during the whole 1990s and even afterwards,” said Elie Tenenbaum, director of security studies center at the French Institute of International Relations.

In a twist, the Taliban victory also boosted the fortunes of their rivals in Afghanistan – a local branch of the Islamic State network. On Thursday, the affiliate claimed responsibility for the suicide attack that killed scores of people outside Kabul’s airport, including 13 U.S. service members.

The Taliban now must contend with an emboldened IS, which is challenging their rule with militants that are far more radical. The group’s ranks have been bolstered after the Taliban freed prisoners during an advance through Afghanistan.

An editorial in the Islamic State group’s newsletter last week derided the Taliban, accusing them of collaborating with the U.S.

“America actually did it. They finally raised a ’Mullah Bradley,” the editorial said, using a name it has coined for the Taliban in an apparent reference to the U.S. fighting vehicle. The group also promised a new phase in its “blessed jihad” against the West.

Analysts say the Taliban‘s success and the U.S. withdrawal galvanizes and gives a motivational boost to America’s adversaries and jihadi groups around the world.

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanon’s Shiite militant group Hezbollah, said in a speech Friday that what is unfolding in Afghanistan “is a portrayal of America’s full defeat and the U.S. demise and failure in the region.”

In northern Syria, a statement by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the al-Qaida affiliate there, said the Taliban victory proved no occupation can last forever. The leader of the radical Palestinian Islamic Hamas movement, which rules the Gaza Strip, congratulated the Taliban‘s leader on the “demise of the U.S. occupation.”

In Pakistan, the leader of Jaish-e-Mohammad, Mohammad Azhur, used the group’s publication to cheer the Taliban victory, saying it will inspire mujahedeen, or holy warriors, “the world over to continue their struggle for Islam.” The group’s fighters took credit for the 2019 attack in the disputed Kashmir region that killed 40 Indian soldiers and brought the nuclear-armed neighbors to the brink of war.

Amir Rana, executive director of the Islamabad-based Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies, said the events in Afghanistan could inspire hard-line Sunni groups who are waging sectarian battles against Shiites. The anti-Shiite groups Lashkar-e-Janghvi and Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan have championed the Taliban victory, raising fears they could restart their deadly activities.

Heni Nsaibia, a senior Sahel researcher at the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, said the Taliban takeover would be a motivational boost for extremists in West Africa, showing that patience and perseverance can pay off.

The biggest danger, according to the analysts, is in unstable countries with a weak central government and a history of insurgency, such as Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya.

There are echoes of 2014, when the Islamic State group sprang from the chaos of conflicts in Iraq and Syria, seized a giant stretch of territory straddling both countries, and declared a “caliphate” after U.S.-trained Iraqi forces collapsed. Terrorist attacks in Europe and beyond followed before IS was defeated in 2017, but attempts to regroup have been seen in the past two years, with new attacks in Iraq and Syria.

A report to the U.N. Security Council last week said the threat to international security from the Islamic State group is rising, pointing to an “alarming” expansion of its affiliates in Africa and its focus on a comeback in Syria and Iraq.

The report said IS and other terrorist groups have taken advantage of “the disruption, grievances and development setbacks” caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Abu Haniyeh, the analyst in Amman, said the perceived defeat of U.S. forces in Afghanistan by a radical group is reverberating among frustrated individuals around the world and will have widespread ramifications in the coming years.

“It gives hope for extremist groups the world over,” he said.

Tony Blair slams ‘imbecilic’ Afghan withdrawal

‘Imbecilic’: Ex-UK leader Tony Blair slams Afghan withdrawal

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FILE – In this Friday, Dec. 14, 2018 file photo, Britain’s former Prime Minister Tony Blair makes a speech on Brexit at the British Academy in London. In a lengthy essay posted on his website late Saturday Aug. 21, 2021, … more >

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By Associated Press

The Washington Times

Sunday, August 22, 2021

LONDON (AP) — Tony Blair, the British prime minister who deployed troops to Afghanistan 20 years ago after the 9/11 attacks, says the U.S. decision to withdraw from the country has “every Jihadist group round the world cheering.”

In a lengthy essay posted on his website late Saturday, the former Labour Party leader said the sudden and chaotic pullout that allowed the Taliban to reclaim power risked undermining everything that had been achieved in Afghanistan over the past two decades, including advances in living standards and the education of girls.

“The abandonment of Afghanistan and its people is tragic, dangerous, unnecessary, not in their interests and not in ours,” said Blair who served as prime minister during 1997-2007, a period that also saw him back the U.S.-led war in Iraq in 2003.

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“The world is now uncertain of where the West stands because it is so obvious that the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan in this way was driven not by grand strategy but by politics,” he added.

Blair also accused U.S. President Joe Biden of being “in obedience to an imbecilic political slogan about ending ‘the forever wars’, as if our engagement in 2021 was remotely comparable to our commitment 20 or even 10 years ago.”

The former prime minister, whose reputation in the U.K. took a dive from the failure to find the alleged weapons of mass destruction that were cited as justification for U.S. coalition’s invasion of Iraq, said Britain has a “moral obligation” to stay in Afghanistan until everyone who needs to be evacuated is taken out.

“We must evacuate and give sanctuary to those to whom we have responsibility — those Afghans who helped us and stood by us and have a right to demand we stand by them,” he said.

Like other nations, Britain is trying to evacuate Afghan allies as well as its own citizens from Afghanistan, but with a U.S.-imposed Aug. 31 deadline hovering into view, it’s a race against time.

In addition to the 4,000 or so U.K. citizens, the country is thought to have around 5,000 Afghan allies, such as translators and drivers, earmarked for a seat on a plane. The Ministry of Defense said Sunday that nearly 4,000 people had been evacuated so far.

Blair conceded that mistakes were made over the past two decades but added that military interventions can be noble in intent, especially when challenging an extreme Islamist threat.

“Today we are in a mood which seems to regard the bringing of democracy as a utopian delusion and intervention virtually of any sort as a fool’s errand.” he said.

Blair also warned that the decision by the U.S. to keep Britain largely in the dark about the withdrawal risks relegating the country to “the second division of global powers.”

However, he said the U.K., in its role as the current president of the Group of Seven nations, was in a position to help coordinate an international response to “hold the new regime to account”.

Britain’s Conservative government has been working diplomatically to ensure there is no unilateral recognition of a Taliban government in Afghanistan.

“We need to draw up a list of incentives, sanctions, actions we can take including to protect the civilian population so the Taliban understand their actions will have consequences,” Blair said.

Congress’ Afghanistan hearings begin next week as Biden’s foreign-policy credentials stained again

Congress’ Afghanistan hearings begin next week as Biden’s foreign-policy credentials stained again

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President Joe Biden, right, meets with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, left, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Friday, June 25, 2021. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) more >

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By Dave Boyer

The Washington Times

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

House Democrats will seek answers from top administration officials early next week on the chaotic collapse in Afghanistan, as President Biden’s supposed mastery of foreign policy is exposed yet again, this time over his handling of the troop pullout and evacuations.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House Foreign Affairs Committee will hear testimony from “the highest level” administration officials. The panel has asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to testify, in a timetable that reflects the urgency of the unresolved crisis in Kabul.

“That will take place early next week — at least it will begin then,” Mrs. Pelosi told KPIX in San Francisco, even as she praised the president for what she called his “strong and decisive” action in Afghanistan.

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Democrats to hold hearings on Biden's mishandling of Afghan collapse, evacuation

Senate Democrats also plan to hold hearings on the fall of Kabul to the Taliban and the hasty evacuation of Americans and allies from the city’s airport. Senate Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat, said his committee will hold hearings on “what went wrong in Afghanistan.”

Mr. Biden’s job-approval rating has taken a big hit as the crisis unfolds. A Reuters/Ipsos poll released Tuesday found that Mr. Biden’s approval dropped by 7 percentage points in a week to 46%, his lowest since taking office.

The collapse of the U.S.-backed government and military is the biggest foreign policy crisis in Mr. Biden’s seven-month tenure. And it has punctured once more his claim over the decades of being one of Washington’s most seasoned foreign-policy experts.

Just a month ago, Mr. Biden assured Americans that a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan was “highly unlikely.”

“As [former Defense Secretary] Bob Gates said ten years ago, Joe Biden has been wrong about nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue for the last four decades,” Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, tweeted on Wednesday. “Make it five decades now.”

Critics say that Mr. Biden, who served eight years as vice president and earlier as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has amassed an unflattering record on major international flashpoints.

When President Obama authorized the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, Mr. Biden was the voice in the room advising against it. He later said he urged Mr. Obama to wait for conclusive intelligence, not to stop the mission altogether.

Mr. Biden voted in favor of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2002. He said Republican President George W. Bush Bush “was right to be concerned about Saddam Hussein’s relentless pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and the possibility that he may use them or share them with terrorists.”

“These weapons must be dislodged from Saddam Hussein, or Saddam Hussein must be dislodged from power,” Mr. Biden said.

Two years later, Mr. Biden asserted, “I never believed they had weapons of mass destruction.”

In 2007, Mr. Biden opposed the Bush administration’s surge of 20,000 troops to Iraq. He called it “contrary to the overwhelming body of informed opinion, both inside and outside the administration.”

The surge was credited later by officials in both parties for stabilizing the security situation in Iraq.

When he announced in April that the U.S. would pull out all remaining troops from Afghanistan, Mr. Biden overruled his top military commanders, including Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They had recommended keeping 2,500 troops in Afghanistan while trying to negotiate a peace agreement.

Former Vice President Mike Pence said the Biden administration’s “disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan is a foreign-policy humiliation unlike anything our country has endured since the Iran hostage crisis.”

“It has embarrassed America on the world stage, caused allies to doubt our dependability, and emboldened enemies to test our resolve,” Mr. Pence wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “Worst of all, it has dishonored the memory of the heroic Americans who helped bring terrorists to justice after 9/11, and all who served in Afghanistan over the past 20 years.”

The glaring U.S. failure in Afghanistan has shaken allies. Tom Tugendhat, the Conservative chair of the British parliament’s foreign affairs committee, called the collapse of Afghanistan “the biggest foreign policy disaster since Suez” in 1956.

“We need to think again about how we handle friends, who matters and how we defend our interests,” he tweeted.

Mrs. Pelosi, California Democrat, said the president took the right course in pulling all U.S. troops out of the 20-year war in Afghanistan.

“I commend the president for the action that he took — it was strong, it was decisive, and it was the right thing to do,” she said. “We should have been out of Afghanistan a while back. Unfortunately, one of the possibilities was that it would be in disarray, as it is, but that has to be corrected.”

Asked about the treasure trove of U.S. military hardware that has fallen into the hands of the Taliban, Mrs. Pelosi replied, “This is what happens when you withdraw — some stuff, some equipment, is left there.”

“It was hoped that it would be used by the Afghan military to defend its own country,” she said. “The fact that it did not and could not was all the more the reason for us to leave.”

McCaul: Afghanistan withdrawal will be ‘stain on this president and his presidency’

McCaul: Afghanistan withdrawal will be ‘stain on this president and his presidency’

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Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, speaks during the House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing on the administration foreign policy priorities on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, March 10, 2021, in Washington. (Ken Cedeno/Pool via AP) more >

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By Seth McLaughlin

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Rep. Michael McCaul said Sunday that President Biden’s decision to pull troops out of Afghanistan will be “stain on this president and his presidency.”

Mr. McCaul, the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the administration underestimated the strength of the Taliban and “totally blew this one.”

“I think it’s an unmitigated disaster of epic proportions,” the Texas Republican said on CNN “State of the Union.” “This is going to be a stain on this president and his presidency — and I think he‘s going to have blood on his hands for what they did.”

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The  United States started withdrawing troops in May and the Taliban offensive started soon after. 

Things intensified in recent days as the Taliban started seizing cities and advanced on Kabul. It has sparked a frenetic evacuation of diplomats and civilians from the war-torn nation decades after the American military pushed the Taliban from power.

Mr. Biden and his senior officials on Sunday defended their actions, while pinning some of the blame on former President Trump for cutting a deal with the Taliban last year.

Mr. McCaul said the fallout was similar to what happened after former President Obama pulled troops out of Iraq.

“I think history is repeating itself,” he said. “Remember, it was Obama and the vice president, at that time, Biden, who decided to withdraw completely out of Iraq, and look what happened. ISIS reared its ugly head.”

Senate panel votes to repeal Iraq war authorizations

Senate panel votes to repeal Iraq war authorizations

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Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., speaks to reporters at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) **FILE** more >

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By Joseph Clark

The Washington Times

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted Wednesday to repeal 1991 and 2002 Authorizations for the Use of Military Force, which provided the legal justification for the Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The 14-8 committee vote follows the House vote in June on two separate measures to repeal the decades-old authorizations in June.

The measure now proceeds to the Senate floor. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said he supports the measure and called Wednesday for a floor vote by the end of the year.

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“Americans, frankly, are sick of endless wars in the Middle East.” Mr. Schumer said Wednesday. “Congress simply hast to exert more authority over matters of war and peace as we all know the Constitution prescribes.”

The repeal of the AUMFs would be the first rollback of presidential war powers since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The committee met twice to consider the measure before taking Wednesday’s vote at the request of several Republican members.

In July, the committee heard testimony from State Department and Pentagon representatives in a closed session.

On Tuesday, the committee heard testimony on the measure from Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and legal advisers from the Departments of Defense and State in an open session.

Ms. Sherman reiterated the Biden administration’s support for the repeal in her testimony.

“President Biden is committed to engaging with Congress on questions of war and peace, and to being transparent about when, where, why and how the United States uses military force,” Ms. Sherman told the committee. “I want to state clearly that the Biden-Harris administration believes the 2002 authorization for the use of military force against Iraq has outlived its usefulness and should be repealed.”

President Biden has previously registered his support for appealing the authorizations, arguing that they are outdated.

The administration also has strayed from previous administrations’ tendency to lean on the 2002 AUMF for engagements in the region, citing Article II of the Constitution for airstrikes on Iranian-backed militia fighters in Iraq and Syria in February and June.

Although lawmakers in both parties largely agree that the authorizations are outdated, some Republicans argue that the repeal could send the wrong message amid continued Iranian aggression in the region.

“If we repeal the Iraq authorizations, we need to put something back on the table that is modern, that’s tailored, and that’s limited so we can message clearly to our allies in the Middle East, as well as to our adversaries like Iran, that the United States remains resolved to protect our nation’s interests,” Sen. Bill Hagerty, Tennessee Republican, said Wednesday.

Mr. Hagerty proposed an amendment that would have repealed the 1991 and 2002 authorizations while authorizing the president to defend against, and respond to, attacks by terrorists and state sponsors of terrorism who are operating in Iraq.

“I have approached this question — sustain or repeal — with much consideration and reflection, and believe strongly that it is past time for the AUMFs to be repealed, but I cannot in good conscience vote to do so when the Biden Administration is actively appeasing the Iranian regime, including ignoring escalating attacks on Americans and allies while offering the Iranian regime tens of billions in sanctions relief in nuclear negotiations,” he said.

Mr. Hagerty’s amendment received Republican support, but failed to pass in committee. He said after the vote he will continue to press for the measure when the Senate takes up the vote later this year. 

“I offered to my colleagues what I believed to be a better, more constructive way for Congress to reassert our war powers and replace them with a more strategic approach,” he said. “Despite my amendment not being agreed to today, I intend to offer it on the Senate floor when the measure to repeal the Iraq AUMFs is brought up for a vote. It is time for Congress to end the endless wars, but ensure the President — any President — remains empowered to protect American lives and interests.”

Biden officials back AUMF repeal ahead of Senate panel vote

Biden officials back repealing Iraq war authorizations ahead of Senate panel vote

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In this file photo, President Bush declares the end of major combat in Iraq as he speaks aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln off the California coast, in this May 1, 2003 file photo. More than 18 years later, … more >

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By Joseph Clark

The Washington Times

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Biden administration officials doubled down Tuesday in support of the repeal of two long-standing Iraq war authorizations, ahead of a Senate panel vote scheduled for Wednesday.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee met Tuesday to grapple with a measure to repeal the 1991 and 2002 Authorizations for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which provided the legal justification for the Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

“President Biden is committed to engaging with Congress on questions of war and peace, and to being transparent about when, where, why, and how the United States uses military force,” Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told the committee. “I want to state clearly that the Biden-Harris administration believes the 2002 authorization for the use of military force against Iraq has outlived its usefulness and should be repealed.”

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The repeal of the AUMFs would be the first rollback of presidential war powers since 9/11. The House passed separate bills in June to repeal the authorizations. 

President Biden has previously registered his support for appealing the authorizations, arguing that they are outdated.

The administration has also strayed from previous administrations’ tendency to lean on the 2002 AUMF for engagements in the region, citing Article II of the Constitution for airstrikes on Iranian-backed militia fighters in Iraq and Syria in February and June.

Then-President Obama cited the authorization in 2014 as legal authority to send troops back in the theater to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In 2020, President Trump cited the 2002 authorization as the legal basis for carrying out the drone strike that killed Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani while he was in Iraq.

Committee members remain divided on the way forward for the authorizations.

Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, said it is irresponsible to leave the outdated authorizations on the books, to potentially be used for purposes for which they were not intended.

“[T]hese authorizations simply do not reflect reality, which is that any U.S. troops currently in Iraq are there at the invitation of the Iraqi government,” he said. “Indeed, the president just welcomed Prime Minister Khadimi to the White House for a strategic dialogue. It simply makes no sense to keep an authorization against Iraq.”

Although lawmakers in both parties largely agree that the authorizations are outdated, some Republicans argue that the repeal could send the wrong message amid continued Iranian aggression in the region.

“While the administration cited Article II authorities as the legal basis for recent strikes, I’m concerned with the practical impacts of repealing the 2002 AUMF,” said ranking Republican on the committee James E. Risch of Idaho. “The 2002 AUMF provides the only statutory authority to strike Iran-backed militias in Iraq.”

He added, “The Biden administration’s policy of less than robust responses to attacks against U.S. interests have clearly failed to restore deterrence. Having said that, it’s all the more important that we underscore the message that we are trying to send.”

Sen. Mitt Romney, Utah Republican, argued that there is little upside to repealing the AUMF and that the move could be misconstrued. He asked Ms. Sherman if she thought the administration would misuse the war authorizations if they remained on the books; she replied it would not.

“Why do it now?” he said. “They’re about to have elections in Iraq. Potentially, this could be misconstrued as somehow America’s pulling away. It seems like the risk is much greater than the benefit.”

Sen. Bill Hagerty, Tennessee Republican, agreed that the authorizations are outdated, but said the repeal without a replacement authorization would undermine U.S. leverage in the region.

“I believe updated congressional authorities are needed precisely because terrorists and state sponsors of terrorism are continuing to escalate attacks on Americans in the Middle East,” he said. “The executive branch will only be in a stronger position if Congress authorizes it to defend Americans in harm’s way.”

During the hearing, Mr. Hagerty introduced a measure that would repeal the 1991 and 2002 authorizations while authorizing the president to defend against, and respond to, attacks by “terrorists and state sponsors of terrorism who are operating in Iraq.”

The panel meets for a markup on the repeal measure Wednesday. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said he supports a Senate floor vote on the measure by the end of the year.

Jordan King Abdullah meets Biden, pledges support for U.S.

‘U.S. can count on me’: Jordan’s King Abdullah meets Biden, reaffirms alliance

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President Joe Biden, right, meets with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, left, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Monday, July 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) more >

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By Jeff Mordock

The Washington Times

Updated: 5:01 p.m. on
Monday, July 19, 2021

King Abdullah II of Jordan met with President Biden at the White House on Monday and pledged that the U.S. can always count on his nation’s support in the Middle East.

“You can always count on me, my country, and many of my colleagues in the region,” he told Mr. Biden.

He later added that “many of us will do the heavy lifting on behalf of the United States.”

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The king’s visit to Washington came amid Middle East turmoil that is creating headaches for the Biden administration. Attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria by Iranian-backed militias are on the rise, complicating the administration’s effort to revive the Iran nuclear deal that former President Trump tore up during his presidency.

Jordan also objected to Mr. Trump’s declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — a historic decision that Mr. Biden does not plan to reverse.

“You live in a tough neighborhood,” Mr. Biden told the king before thanking him for “the generosity you’ve shown me and my country.”

King Abdullah also objected to the Trump administration’s deal with several Middle Eastern countries known as the Abraham Accords. The deal normalized relations with Israel but left out the Palestinians.

The Biden team stress to King Abdullah that the accords are not an “end run” on finding the way to a peace deal that includes a Palestinian state, according to a senior administration official who was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The two leaders also discussed the situation in Syria — more than 1 million Syrian refugees have fled the war-ravaged nation for Jordan — and a wobbly security situation in Iraq, the official said.

At least eight drone attacks have targeted the U.S. military presence in Iraq since Mr. Biden took office in January, as well as 17 rocket attacks.

• This story included wire service reports.

Iraqi health officials: 64 dead in fire at coronavirus ward

Iraqi health officials: 64 dead in fire at coronavirus ward

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People gather outside a COVID-19 hospital in Nasiriyah, Iraq, early Tuesday, July 13, 2021. A catastrophic blaze erupted at the coronavirus hospital ward. It was the second time a large fire killed coronavirus patients in an Iraqi hospital this year. … more >

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By Qassim Abdul-Zahra

Associated Press

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

BAGHDAD (AP) — The death toll from a catastrophic blaze that erupted at a coronavirus hospital ward in southern Iraq the previous day rose to 64 on Tuesday, Iraqi medical officials said.

Two health officials said more than 100 people were also injured in the fire that torched the coronavirus ward of al-Hussein Teaching Hospital in the city of Nasiriyah on Monday.

Anguished relatives were still looking for traces of their loved ones on Tuesday morning, searching through the debris of charred blankets and belongings inside the torched remains of the ward. A blackened skull of a deceased female patient from the ward was found.

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Many cried openly, their tears tinged with anger, blaming both the provincial government of Dhi Qar, where Nasiriyah is located, and the federal government in Baghdad for years of mismanagement and neglect.

“The whole state system has collapsed, and who paid the price? The people inside here. These people have paid the price,” said Haidar al-Askari, who was at the scene of the blaze.

Overnight, firefighters and rescuers — many with just flashlights and using blankets to extinguish small fires still smoldering in places — had frantically worked searching through the ward in the darkness. As dawn broke, bodies covered with sheets were laid on the ground outside the hospital.

Earlier, officials had said the fire was caused by an electric short circuit, but provided no more details. Another official said the blaze erupted when an oxygen cylinder exploded. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to journalists.

The new ward, opened just three months ago, contained 70 beds.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi chaired an emergency meeting in the wake of the fire and ordered the suspension and arrest of the health director in Dhi Qar, as well as the director of the hospital and the city’s director of civil defense. A government investigation was also launched.

In the nearby Shiite holy city of Najaf, mourners prepared to bury some of the victims.

It was the second time a large fire killed coronavirus patients in an Iraqi hospital this year. At least 82 people died at Ibn al-Khateeb hospital in Baghdad in April, when an oxygen tank exploded, sparking the blaze.

That incident brought to light widespread negligence and systemic mismanagement in Iraq’s hospitals. Doctors have decried lax safety rules, especially around the oxygen cylinders.

On Monday, Ammar al-Zamili, spokesman for the Dhi Qar health department, told local media that there were at least 63 patients inside the ward when the fire began. Maj. Gen. Khalid Bohan, head of Iraq’s civil defense, said in comments to the press that the building was constructed from flammable materials and prone to fire.

Iraq is in the midst of another severe COVID-19 surge. Daily coronavirus rates peaked last week at 9,000 new cases. After decades of war and sanctions, Iraq’s health sector has struggled to contain the virus. Over 17,000 people have died of the virus among 1.4 million confirmed cases since the start of the pandemic.

U.S. airstrikes hit Iran-backed militias in Iraq, Syria

U.S. launches series of airstrikes against Iran-backed militias in Iraq, Syria

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In this June 21, 2021, photo, Iran’s new President-elect Ebrahim Raisi waves at the conclusion of his news conference in Tehran, Iran. Biden administration officials are insisting that the election of a hard-liner as Iran’s president won’t affect prospects for … more >

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By Ben Wolfgang

The Washington Times

Sunday, June 27, 2021

U.S. forces on Sunday night launched three airstrikes against Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria, Pentagon officials said, calling the action a “clear and unambiguous deterrent message” to Tehran and its proxy groups in the region.

The airstrikes targeted facilities used by the groups Kata’ib Hezbollah and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, both of which have launched drone attacks against American personnel in the region. 

The Pentagon classified the strikes as “defensive precision airstrikes,” suggesting that military leaders believed more attacks against U.S. troops may have been looming.

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“President Biden has been clear that he will act to protect U.S. personnel,” the Defense Department said in a statement. “Given the ongoing series of attacks by Iran-backed groups targeting U.S. interests in Iraq, the president directed further military action to disrupt and deter such attacks.”

“The United States took necessary, appropriate, and deliberate action designed to limit the risk of escalation — but also to send a clear and unambiguous deterrent message,” the Pentagon said.

Indeed, Iran-backed groups have regularly targeted U.S. military personnel in the Middle East in recent years.

The president, returning to the White House Sunday night from a weekend at Camp David, didn’t respond to reporters’ questions about Syria.

The strikes targeted two operational and weapons storage facilities in Syria and one in Iraq. The bombings appear aimed to limit the militias’ ability to target American troops in the future.

A reporter with the state-controlled Syrian Arab News Agency said a child had been killed and three other civilians wounded in the strike near the border town of al-Bukamal, but that account could not be confirmed independently.

It’s at least the second time Mr. Biden has ordered direct airstrikes against the Kata’ib Hezbollah group. In February, he ordered the bombing of the militia’s facilities in Syria, just across the border with Iraq.

Sunday’s attacks come amid diplomatic talks between the U.S., Iran and other world powers about the future of Tehran‘s nuclear program. The Biden administration is seeking to reinstate an Obama-era agreement that limited Iran’s nuclear-weapons program in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.

Former President Trump pulled the U.S. out of that deal in 2018.

Mr. Biden‘s critics have taken aim at the diplomatic engagement with Iran partially because of Tehran‘s continued backing of dangerous militia groups, including the two organizations targeted on Sunday.

Iran condemned the U.S. strike Monday in relatively restrained terms. Foreign Ministry spokeman Saeed Khatibzadeh told a Monday press briefing in Tehran that the U.S. government “is still following a wrong path in the region” by sticking with the pressure tactics of the Trump administration.

“Unfortunately, what we see is that the [Biden] administration continues with the failed American policies in the region not only n the issue of sanctions, but also on regional policies,” the spokesman said. “… What the U.S. is doing is upsetting security in the region, and it itself will be one of the victims of such insecurity,” he said.

Pakistani diplomat: Biden administration ‘delusional’ to think Taliban has broken ties with al Qaeda

Ex-Pakistani diplomat: Biden ‘delusional’ to think Taliban has broken ties with al Qaeda

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Former Pakistani Ambassador Husain Haqqani more >

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By Guy Taylor

The Washington Times

Sunday, June 27, 2021

The Biden administration is “delusional” if it thinks the Taliban have broken or will break from what is left of the al Qaeda terrorist network in Afghanistan, says a former top Pakistani diplomat in Washington.

Husain Haqqani, who served as Islamabad’s ambassador to the U.S. a decade ago and is now a senior fellow with the Hudson Institute, said the “military situation in Afghanistan is comparable to what happened in Iraq in 2011.”

His assessment in a message to The Washington Times dovetails with those of a growing number of regional experts who warn that the vacuum left by the U.S. and NATO pullout from Afghanistan could trigger an extremist surge akin to the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria after the 2011 American troop withdrawal from Iraq.

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The Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, emerged from the ashes of al Qaeda in Iraq in 2012 and 2013 and seized swaths of Iraqi and Syrian territory in 2014. The rise of ISIS triggered a spiraling global security crisis as the group inspired and directed terrorist attacks in Western Europe, the United States and elsewhere.

Hawkish national security analysts say a similar situation could unfold in Afghanistan.

“The U.S. troop withdrawal, I think, is a decision we’re likely going to regret,” retired Army Gen. Jack Keane said Friday during an appearance on Fox News.

Gen. Keane, who heads the board of directors at the Institute for the Study of War, compared the developments in Afghanistan to the Obama-era U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, which he said allowed the rise of the Islamic State terrorist group.

Mr. Haqqani told The Times that the security landscape in Afghanistan is comparable to the dynamic in Iraq “after [the] sudden withdrawal of U.S. troops.”

He added, though, that “all is not lost,” particularly if the Biden administration uses the right mix of strategic and covert military action, including airstrikes and air support for Afghan security forces, to influence the Taliban’s behavior.

“[The] U.S. providing air support capability to Afghans, intelligence and covert ops could stop the Taliban’s military advances and force them to negotiate with the Afghan government,” Mr. Haqqani said.

The Taliban’s recent territorial gains hung in the backdrop of a highly publicized White House visit Friday by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, who chairs Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation and is heading stalled attempts to negotiate a long-term power-sharing agreement between the government in Kabul and the Taliban.

President Biden sought to convey a message of confidence. U.S. troops, he said, “may be leaving, but our support for Afghanistan is not ending in terms of support and maintenance of helping maintain their military as well as economic and political support.”

The parameters of military support have yet to be clearly defined. U.S. officials told The Associated Press last week that roughly 650 American troops will remain in Afghanistan to provide security for diplomats after the main American military force completes its withdrawal, which is expected in the next two weeks.

Mr. Biden previously called for a troop withdrawal by Sept. 11 — the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks plotted by al Qaeda operatives whom the Taliban had given haven.

The withdrawal was set into motion last year after the Trump administration reached an agreement with the Taliban for U.S. troops to leave in exchange for security guarantees. Among the Taliban promises was a permanent break with al Qaeda. Afghanistan was never again to become a sanctuary for terrorist organizations.

The militants also vowed to engage in meaningful talks toward a political settlement with the government in Kabul. Although it remains to be seen how those talks will play out, unease is swirling around the prospect of an al Qaeda or other extremist resurgence in Afghanistan, where groups loyal to the Islamic State are also active.

Mr. Haqqani told The Times that “the Biden administration needs to recognize that the Taliban are not the partners in peace they were made out to be and that it is delusional to think that they will break from al Qaeda.”

Pentagon leaders, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, have acknowledged that al Qaeda in Afghanistan could regenerate and plot terrorist attacks on the American homeland within two years — sooner if the insurgent Taliban overwhelm the fragile U.S.-backed government in Kabul and take control of the country.

Mr. Austin and Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, outlined the worst-case scenario last week when Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, pressed them to estimate whether the likelihood of an al Qaeda resurgence in Afghanistan was small, medium or large.

“I would assess it as medium. I would also say … it would take possibly two years for them to develop that capability” to carry out terrorist attacks outside Afghanistan, Mr. Austin told the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Gen. Milley gave a similar assessment, though he warned that the time frame could be much shorter if the Afghan government collapses without U.S. and NATO support.

“If certain other things happen, if there was a collapse of the government or the dissolution of the Afghan security forces, that risk would obviously increase,” he said. “But right now, I’d say ‘medium’ and about two years or so.”

Despite such concerns, advocates against U.S. military intervention abroad say the troop pullout is long overdue. Tens of thousands of Afghans and more than 2,400 American military personnel have been killed in the war zone in the past two decades.

“After 20 years, tens of thousands of casualties and $2 trillion, the U.S. has wasted far too much trying to stabilize Afghanistan,” retired Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis at Defense Priorities said in comments circulated to journalists.

“It’s true Afghan security forces will struggle to hold ground in a post-U.S. Afghanistan. But the alternative of keeping U.S. forces in the country to prop them up will not solve their problems,” he said. “Extending the U.S. deployment would trap thousands of U.S. soldiers in a civil war they cannot win, and risk more unnecessary American casualties.”

⦁ Ben Wolfgang contributed to this report.

‘Insane:’ Biden’s push for nuclear deal hit for letting Iran off the hook

‘Insane:’ Biden’s push for nuclear deal hit for letting Iran off the hook

Tehran backing terrorism, targeting Americans left out of talks

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In this file photo from April 1, 2015, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, right, speaks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, center, and U.S. Robert Malley, left, Senior Director for … more >

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By Ben Wolfgang

The Washington Times

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Weapons-laden Iranian warships are speeding across the Atlantic Ocean and may be destined for Venezuelan ports. 

In the Red Sea, Iran-backed Houthi forces battling the internationally recognized government this week reportedly planted sea mines in a direct threat to U.S. Navy ships that sail in the strategically vital waterway. 

Last month, Iranian financing helped militants from Palestinian Hamas, which the U.S. and Israel consider a terrorist group, launched an unprecedented rocket war on Israel.

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Iran-linked militias in Iraq and Syria have repeatedly targeted U.S. personnel in the Middle East, and Iranian speedboats routinely harass American vessels across the region.

None of that seems to be affecting President Biden’s quest to strike a new deal with Iran to limit the Islamic republic’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting harsh economic sanctions that President Trump reimposed.

Top Biden administration diplomats, led by special Iran envoy Robert Malley, are in their sixth round of indirect talks with Iran in Vienna. They are motivated to act quickly because of Iranian elections Friday and the growing expectation that an anti-American hard-liner is in line to win.

Other countries involved in the talks — major European allies, Russia and China — have spoken of narrowing differences to bring the U.S. back into the deal, which Mr. Trump repudiated in 2018. State Department spokesperson Jalina Porter said Tuesday that the parties have made “meaningful progress” toward a new deal but “outstanding issues” remain.

It looks increasingly unlikely that any new nuclear agreement would address other Iranian behavior. The Biden administration took a tough rhetorical line in its early weeks and signaled that Iran must make concessions before any real talks could begin, but critics say the president and his top deputies now appear to be desperate to bank a major diplomatic breakthrough quickly and save Tehran‘s worrisome activities for another day.

“No matter what Iran does, the policy is to try to ignore it,” said Richard Goldberg, senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a critic of the original 2015 Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration.

“Iranian proxies killed an American in Iraq — no response,” he said. The [International Atomic Energy Agency] says Iran is hiding nuclear sites and materials — no response. The Iranian navy sends ships to Venezuela — no response. And on and on the list goes.

“It’s not just bad Iran policy; it’s bad national security policy, period,” said Mr. Goldberg, who served as director for countering Iranian weapons of mass destruction at the White House National Security Council under Mr. Trump. “Everyone is watching this show of American weakness: China, Russia, North Korea. And they’re learning all the wrong lessons about President Biden’s tolerance level for misconduct and extortion. … What kind of insane foreign policy is that?”

Republican criticism of the Biden team’s willingness to engage with Iran is nothing new.

Many of the same Republican figures and hawkish foreign policy analysts in Washington lambasted President Obama’s engagement with Iran, which ultimately led to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a deal signed by the U.S., Iran, Russia, China, Britain, Germany and France. That deal freed up billions of dollars in frozen Iranian assets in exchange for unprecedented restrictions on Iran‘s nuclear program. It was negotiated by many of the same key players in Mr. Biden’s diplomatic team, including Mr. Malley.

Even though U.N. inspectors said Iran was largely abiding by the deal’s nuclear limits, Mr. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the JCPOA in 2018. He said the accord did not stop Iran‘s support of terrorist groups and other misdeeds in the Middle East.

In the years since, Iran‘s behavior has grown more brazen and destabilizing. Beyond challenging U.S. interests and allies in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, Tehran has used drones and military speedboats to directly confront the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf. Pentagon and intelligence officials also are keeping a close eye on two Iranian warships believed to be transporting weapons or illegal fuel to the socialist regime of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. 

U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officials say Iran remains the world’s undisputed leader in direct financial support for groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah and have long warned that Tehran has offered safe haven to key al Qaeda figures.

‘Back in the box’

Citing Mr. Trump’s breach of the deal as justification, Iran has disregarded the limits on uranium enrichment established by the JCPOA, potentially putting Tehran just months away from obtaining weapons-grade material.

The Biden administration says that is exactly why an updated agreement is so important. Much like the arguments made by Mr. Obama years ago, they contend that Iran‘s nuclear program represents such a serious, immediate threat that containing it is a first-priority security imperative for the entire world.

They say that Mr. Trump’s hard line and pressure campaign — including the killing of a top Iranian general in an airstrike in January 2020 — did nothing to curb Iran’s bad behavior and a new approach is needed.

“If this goes on a lot longer, if they continue to gallop ahead … they’re going to have knowledge that’s going to be very hard to reverse,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CBS News on Sunday, “which I think puts some urgency in seeing if we can put the nuclear problem back in the box that the agreement had put it in that, unfortunately, Iran is now out of as a result of us pulling out of the agreement.”

Mr. Biden and other Group of Seven leaders over the weekend expressed a similar sentiment.  

“We are committed to ensuring that Iran will never develop a nuclear weapon,” the U.S., Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Britain said in a joint statement. “A restored and fully implemented [JCPOA] could also pave the way to further address regional and security concerns.”

The U.S. and its allies in Europe also speak out consistently against Iran‘s support for terrorism, and it’s not certain whether that issue will be entirely absent from any potential nuclear deal. For its part, the Biden administration has taken some direct action against Iranian proxy groups, including airstrikes in late February against the Syrian base of the militant organization Kait’ib Hezbollah, which previously targeted U.S. personnel stationed in neighboring Iraq.

Meanwhile, Friday’s presidential election in Iran has only put extra pressure on the administration. With hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi widely expected to win, Iran‘s position on nuclear negotiations may change and its appetite to deal with the U.S. could diminish.

“For the Iranians, the challenge is they’ve got the elections. The question is: Can the Biden administration make concessions fast enough to beat the Iranians to their election punch, understanding that after the election things may change?” said Danielle Pletka, senior fellow in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “The administration‘s assessment is that they may be harder pressed to make a deal with the new guys.”

Iranian officials have said the nuclear negotiations are proceeding no matter who wins the presidential vote and that the next president would respect any deal agreed to in Geneva.

“The nuclear file is a national dossier that is being advanced with consensus in the Islamic Republic, is unrelated to domestic developments, and is being pursued by the governing organizations, Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiee told reporters in Tehran last week.

Ms. Pletka and other critics argue that the administration‘s willingness to let virtually all other issues slide is driving the U.S. negotiating strategy.

“One of the things the administration has signaled to the Iranians is, … ‘We are never going to co-mingle anything else you do with the nuclear accords,’” she said. “’We don’t care what you do. … We are not going to let that interfere with our desperate desire to get a nuclear deal.’”

On Capitol Hill, Republicans also have taken aim at the administration and its handling of Iran policy. Top GOP lawmakers, for example, have demanded that Congress review — and approve or deny — any nuclear deal reached with Tehran.

Kuttem Reese – No Statements Lyrics (feat. Lil Durk)

[Intro: Kuttem Reese]
Look, we ain’t getting on no live, nigga
We ain’t sending out no threats, nigga, look
Who the f*ck is KuttemReese?
Who the f*ck is that? (Who is that?)
I’m finna show you right here
I’m finna show you right here
Look

[Verse 1: Kuttem Reese]
We ain’t sending out no texts, nigga
We ain’t getting on no live talking about beef and sending out threats, nigga
All you niggas crashin’, follow the blind and you crash next, nigga
Baby Joe can go on that ace of spades to come out as that nigga
Every time I come, I come direct, nigga, get your aim right
He let out sixty-two shots, in five attempts, must they aim right?
I wasn’t even dead you missed your target and I was in plain sight
Plain car, everybody get laced up and get them things right
f*ck the red and blue lights, we still gon slide, we doing it the same night
I just got the drop, yeah, after this light, just make the same right
Stretch gang, she must say I scrap know that she a dang dyke
You sent your stepper and guess what happened, that nigga lost his damn life
I got em hot, I know he mad I got em out his element
He IG Live talkin’ paperwork, but he ain’t got no evidence
How the f*ck Imma rapper and be KuttEm Reese if I’m supposed to be on that telling shit
I would have caught a flight and went with 6ix9ine if I was on that federal shit
Y’all ain’t really care about y’all nigga
Y’all just made him shirts
Like the other side, them boys ain’t never slide, I know they family hurt
I’m runnin with them Z’s, but you know me, I grew up in church
This for that nigga screamin’, “Pressure!” Til’ he in the dirt

For that nigga screamin’, “Pressure!” Til’ he in the dirt
Rrahh, rrahh, CKN, bitch

[Interlude: Lil Durk]
Smurk
Hah, I’m with real gang members in this bitch right now, real killers for real, bro

[Verse 2: Lil Durk]
Get on niggas asses, you f*ck with them niggas, we don’t give out passes
Them niggas was bragging, get on their ass and turn they brothers ashes
Dissing me ain’t safe, this shit for real, my shit gon’ come with caskets
I hang with some takers, they ain’t with me, if you catch them niggas asking
Lil’ bro give headshots for real
Calm bro down, he off two pills
Slide on opps, bro got the wheel
Black box on the Glock for real
Roll my dawg got two Glocks for real
Dude ass head got shot and lived
I don’t let hoes come to the crib, for the cash they’ll drop yo’ lo’ for real
I’m a gangsta, shit, I’m a Chiraq baby, what’s this like? It’s like Iraq, baby
You ain’t a ho, I know you like that, baby
That highspeed in that Hellcat crazy
Why you playin’? Ain’t no Glock on safety
Switch his tush that top go crazy
Lil’ bro treat that Glock like Brady
Drugs and lean, I’m too sedated
What red light? I’m not Toosii, baby
We don’t stop at those, you crazy?
I just paid my dawg his bond, I just paid my lawyer eighty
Like, wait, bro, you gotta pause for this
Ayy, bitch, take off your drawers for this
Ayy, snitch, what you gon’ call this shit?
I’m rich, free all my dawgs again
Let’s get it

[Outro]
Yeah, mm, mm, mm
Mm, mm
Mm, mm, mm
Mm
Mm, mm, mm
You can hear them chains clickin’ in this motherf*cker
Gang, gang, gang

Iran’s top diplomat praises Iraq efforts as regional broker

Iran’s top diplomat praises Iraq efforts as regional broker

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Iraqi Foreign Minister Fouad Hussein, right, meets with visiting Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif in Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, April 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed) more >

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By

Associated Press

Monday, April 26, 2021

BAGHDAD (AP) – Iran’s foreign minister on Monday praised Baghdad‘s efforts aimed at bolstering regional stability, saying he hopes they would lead to “more negotiations and understandings” in the region.

Mohammad Javad Zarif spoke to reporters during a visit to the Iraqi capital, which earlier this month hosted the first round of direct talks between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran. The talks signaled a possible de-escalation following years of animosity that often spilled into neighboring countries and at least one still-raging war.

Zarif also extended Iran’s condolences after a massive fire at a Baghdad hospital for coronavirus patients over the weekend killed 82 people. Officials said the blaze, which also injured 110 people, was set off by an exploding oxygen cylinder.

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Riyadh has been trying to end its years-long war in Yemen against Iran-backed Houthi rebels who have increasingly launched missiles and bomb-laden drones at the kingdom to targeting crucial sites and oil infrastructure. Ending that war could be a bargaining chip for the Iranians as they seek sanctions relief from nuclear talks in Vienna.

“We welcome Iraq’s vital role in the region and we hope that day after day that strengthens Iraq’s role for the stability of the region,” Zarif said during a joint news conference with his Iraqi counterpart, Fouad Hussein.

“We thank the Iraqi government for exerting its efforts,” Zarif said, without confirming the Saudi-Iran talks were indeed held in Iraq. “We hope that these efforts will lead to more negotiations and understandings in the region.”

All foreign powers will eventually leave, Zarif added, but “we will stay here and we should base our relations on good neighborhood, no interference and mutual respect.”

Iraq, which has ties with both the U.S. and Iran, has often borne the brunt of Saudi-Iran rivalry.

Hussein said Iraq’s foreign policy is to build “balanced relation with everyone and calm things.”

Neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia have confirmed the talks took place, though Iranian officials have alluded to them and welcomed them.

Iran-Saudi relations worsened considerably in 2016, when Riyadh removed its diplomats after protesters attacked the kingdom’s embassy in Tehran and consulate in Mashhad in retaliation for its execution of Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr. Those posts have remained closed. At the time, Iraq offered itself as a possible mediator between the two countries.

During his Iraq visit, Zarif is scheduled to meet top officials, visit the holy Shiite city of Najaf and also the Kurdish region in the north.

The visit coincided with a firestorm within Iran set off by a leaked recording of Zarif speaking in an interview to a well known economist. Zarif took no questions from journalists after giving his brief statement in Baghdad and did not address the issue.

Joe Biden moves to limit presidential authority to go to war

Biden, lawmakers take step to limit president’s authority to go to war

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President Biden on committed to working with Congress to replace war-making authorities that have underpinned U.S. military action in the Middle East and beyond for the nearly two decades since the shock of the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. (AP … more >

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By Ben Wolfgang

The Washington Times

Sunday, March 7, 2021

President Biden and a bipartisan caucus on Capitol Hill may have just taken the first step toward a deal that has eluded Washington for more than a decade: the establishment of clear, narrow limits on a commander in chief’s authority to take the country into war.

Mr. Biden on Friday committed to working with Congress to replace war-making authorities that have underpinned U.S. military action in the Middle East and beyond for the nearly two decades since the shock of the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.

Despite the readiness for change, laying down new rules will likely prove a tough task on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

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The White House comments were the first clear signal from the Biden administration that it is on board with a bipartisan push to craft new versions of Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) laws. Critics say the authorizations have been stretched past the breaking point and abused by presidents of both parties at the expense of congressional oversight.

The White House announced its intentions a week after Mr. Biden authorized, without congressional approval or notification, U.S. airstrikes in Syria against the Iran-backed militia Kataib Hezbollah, which the Pentagon said had been targeting American forces in neighboring Iraq.

The president did not cite any AUMF in his legal rationale. Lawmakers and analysts said the strikes, along with President Trump’s decision to target and kill Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani last year, offered more proof that the executive branch had amassed near-limitless power to conduct military operations whenever and wherever they please.

The key debate centers on the AUMF enacted in 2001 in the days after the 9/11 attacks, giving President Bush the legal grounds for the U.S. to invade Afghanistan and topple the Taliban. It also authorized the president to take military action to defeat al Qaeda and others who plausibly contributed to or supported the devastating attacks.

In the years since, Presidents Bush, Obama and Trump used the force authorization measure to justify years of military campaigns against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, hundreds of airstrikes on the al-Shabab terrorist network in Somalia, and a host of other actions in the Middle East and Africa. Presidents in both parties have argued that the AUMF gives them broad discretion to target terrorist groups around the globe.

Analysts say it’s long past time to rewrite the rules.

”At some point, a country has to be precise about how it thinks about its military footprint. The idea that we’ve allowed the original AUMF to expand exponentially since the fall of 2001 is really unconscionable,” said Karen J. Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University School of Law. “What we’ve learned is we actually need laws with some barriers and with limits. The reason we need to reconsider the AUMF comes down to lessons learned.”

The White House seems to agree, at least rhetorically, with the need to establish new guidelines. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday that Mr. Biden is committed to working with the House and Senate to “ensure that the authorizations for the use of military force currently on the books are replaced with a narrow and specific framework that will ensure we can protect Americans from terrorist threats while ending the ‘forever wars.’”

How far and how fast?

It’s not entirely clear, however, exactly how far the partnership will go. Although the White House said it is open to reviewing all AUMFs on the books, current legislation on Capitol Hill does not address the 2001 law that Ms. Greenberg and other specialists say is the most problematic.

A bipartisan bill rolled out last week by Sen. Tim Kaine, Virginia Democrat, and Sen. Todd Young, Indiana Republican, would repeal the 1991 and 2002 AUMFs on the books. The 2002 AUMF authorized the U.S. military campaign against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, and the 1991 law paved the way for the Persian Gulf War and technically remains in place 30 years later.

“Last week’s airstrikes in Syria show that the executive branch, regardless of party, will continue to stretch its war powers,” Mr. Kaine said in a statement. “Congress has a responsibility to not only vote to authorize new military action, but to repeal old authorizations that are no longer necessary.”

The 1991 and 2002 authorizations, Mr. Kaine said, “need to be taken off the books to prevent their future misuse. They serve no operational purpose, keep us on permanent war footing and undermine the sovereignty of Iraq, a close partner.”

The legislation has support across the ideological spectrum, including from liberal Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, and libertarian-leaning Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican.

Ms. Greenberg said the broader and ill-defined 2001 AUMF also must be a part of the discussion. “I think the 2001 AUMF has to be addressed, and the sooner the better,” she said.

Lawmakers and administration officials alike say the politics of the move can be tricky. Rescinding the force authorization measures is easy enough. Saying specifically, on the record, what should replace them is difficult for both the executive and legislative branches.

“We did try to do this a few years ago, and it’s not easy to get to yes,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during his Senate confirmation hearing in January, when he recalled his own experiences as a top foreign policy aide in the Obama administration.

“For some the porridge is too hot, for others the porridge is too cold,” he said. “And can we get a consensus around what’s just right? But I would be determined and committed to working on that.”

Lawmakers say the recent airstrikes on Iran-backed militias should spur action, but Mr. Biden did not cite any AUMF in his legal justification for the order. Instead, he cited the right to self-defense after a missile attack on a base housing U.S. and allied troops and the belief in national security circles that the Iraqi militias would soon launch fresh attacks against U.S. interests.

“The United States took this action pursuant to the United States’ inherent right of self-defense as reflected in Article 51 of the United Nations Charter,” the president said in a letter to congressional leaders.

Some legal experts say that explanation is important and suggests that the limits of the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs may have been reached.

”Given that the Feb. 25 airstrikes targeted groups that were Iranian backed, rather than remnants or offshoots of the Islamic State, it would have been a legal stretch, and politically impossible, for Biden to rely on either the 2001 or 2002 AUMF,” John B. Bellinger III, a partner at the Arnold & Porter law firm and former legal adviser to the State Department, wrote in a recent post for the website Lawfare.

Pope Francis urges Iraq to embrace its Christians on historic visit

Pope Francis urges Iraq to embrace its Christians on historic visit

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Pope Francis is welcomed upon his arrival at the Sayidat al-Nejat (Our Lady of Salvation) Cathedral, in Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, March 5, 2021. Pope Francis has arrived in Iraq to urge the country’s dwindling number of Christians to stay put … more >

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By Nicole Winfield and Samya Kullab

Associated Press

Updated: 2:51 p.m. on
Friday, March 5, 2021

BAGHDAD (AP) — Pope Francis opened the first-ever papal visit to Iraq on Friday with a plea for the country to protect its centuries-old diversity, urging Muslims to embrace their Christian neighbors as a precious resource and asking the embattled Christian community — “though small like a mustard seed” — to persevere.

Francis brushed aside the coronavirus pandemic and security concerns to resume his globe-trotting papacy after a yearlong hiatus spent under COVID-19 lockdown in Vatican City. His primary aim over the weekend is to encourage Iraq‘s dwindling Christian population, which was violently persecuted by the Islamic State group and still faces discrimination by the Muslim majority, to stay and help rebuild the country devastated by wars and strife. 

“Only if we learn to look beyond our differences and see each other as members of the same human family,” Francis told Iraqi authorities in his welcoming address, “will we be able to begin an effective process of rebuilding and leave to future generations a better, more just and more humane world.” 

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The 84-year-old pope donned a facemask during the flight from Rome and throughout all his protocol visits, as did his hosts. But the masks came off when the leaders sat down to talk, and social distancing and other health measures appeared lax at the airport and on the streets of Baghdad, despite the country’s worsening COVID-19 outbreak. 

The government is eager to show off the relative stability it has achieved after the defeat of the IS “caliphate.” Nonetheless, security measures were tight.

Francis, who relishes plunging into crowds and likes to travel in an open-sided popemobile, was transported around Baghdad in an armored black BMWi750, flanked by rows of motorcycle police. It was believed to be the first time Francis had used a bulletproof car — both to protect him and keep crowds from forming.

Iraqis, though, seemed keen to welcome Francis and the global attention his visit brought. Some lined the road to cheer his motorcade. Banners and posters in central Baghdad depicted Francis with the slogan “We are all Brothers.” 

Some hoping to get close were sorely disappointed by the heavy security cordons.

“It was my great wish to meet the pope and pray for my sick daughter and pray for her to be healed. But this wish was not fulfilled,” said Raad William Georges, a 52-year-old father of three who said he was turned away when he tried to see Francis during his visit to Our Lady of Salvation Cathedral in the Karrada neighborhood.

“This opportunity will not be repeated,” he said ruefully. “I will try tomorrow, I know it will not happen, but I will try.”

Francis told reporters aboard the papal plane that he was happy to be resuming his travels again and said it was particularly symbolic that his first trip was to Iraq, the traditional birthplace of Abraham, revered by Muslims, Christians and Jews.

“This is an emblematic journey,” he said. “It is also a duty to a land tormented by many years.”

Francis was visibly limping throughout the afternoon in a sign his sciatica nerve pain, which has flared and forced him to cancel events recently, was possibly bothering him. He nearly tripped as he climbed up the steps to the cathedral and an aide had to steady him. 

At a pomp-filled gathering with President Barham Salih at a palace inside Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, Francis said Christians and other minorities in Iraq deserve the same rights and protections as the Shiite Muslim majority.

“The religious, cultural and ethnic diversity that has been a hallmark of Iraqi society for millennia is a precious resource on which to draw, not an obstacle to eliminate,” he said. “Iraq today is called to show everyone, especially in the Middle East, that diversity, instead of giving rise to conflict, should lead to harmonious cooperation in the life of society.”

Salih, a member of Iraq‘s ethnic Kurdish minority, echoed his call.

“The East cannot be imagined without Christians,” Salih said. “The continued migration of Christians from the countries of the east will have dire consequences for the ability of the people from the same region to live together.” 

The Iraq visit is in keeping with Francis‘ long-standing effort to improve relations with the Muslim world, which has accelerated in recent years with his friendship with a leading Sunni cleric, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb. It will reach a new high with his meeting Saturday with Iraq‘s leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a figure revered in Iraq and beyond.

In Iraq, the pontiff bringing his call for tolerance to a country rich in ethnic and religious diversity but deeply traumatized by hatreds. Since the 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, it has seen vicious sectarian violence between Shiites and Sunni Muslims, clashes and tensions between Arabs and Kurds, and militant atrocities against minorities like Christians and Yazidis. 

The few Christians who remain harbor a lingering mistrust of their Muslim neighbors and face discrimination that long predated IS. 

Iraq‘s Christians, whose presence here goes back nearly to the time of Christ, belong to a number of rites and denominations, with the Chaldean Catholic the largest, along with Syriac Catholics, Assyrians and several Orthodox churches. They once constituted a sizeable minority in Iraq, estimated at around 1.4 million. But their numbers began to fall amid the post-2003 turmoil when Sunni militants often targeted Christians. 

They received a further blow when IS in 2014 swept through northern Iraq, including traditionally Christian towns across the Nineveh plains. Their extremist version of Islam forced residents to flee to the neighboring Kurdish region or further afield. 

Few have returned — estimates suggest there are fewer than 300,000 Christians still in Iraq and many of those remain displaced from their homes. Those who did go back found homes and churches destroyed. Many feel intimidated by Shiite militias controlling some areas.

There are practical struggles, as well. Many Iraqi Christians cannot find work and blame discriminatory practices in the public sector, Iraq‘s largest employer. Public jobs have been mostly controlled by Shiite political elites. 

For the pope, who has often traveled to places where Christians are a persecuted minority, Iraq‘s beleaguered Christians are the epitome of the “martyred church” that he has admired ever since he was a young Jesuit seeking to be a missionary in Asia. 

At Our Lady of Salvation Cathedral, Francis prayed and honored the victims of one of the worst massacres of Christians,  the 2010 attack on the cathedral by Islamic militants that left 58 people dead. 

Speaking to congregants, he urged Christians to persevere in Iraq to ensure that its Catholic community, “though small like a mustard seed, continues to enrich the life of society as a whole” — using an image found in both the Bible and Quran.

On Sunday, Francis will honor the dead in a Mosul square surrounded by shells of destroyed churches and meet with the small Christian community that returned to the town of Qaraqosh, where he will bless their church that was vandalized and used as a firing range by IS.

Iraq is seeing a new spike in coronavirus infections, with most new cases traced to the highly contagious variant first identified in Britain. Francis, the Vatican delegation and travelling media have been vaccinated; most Iraqis have not, raising questions about the  potential for the trip to fuel infections.

The Vatican and Iraqi authorities have downplayed the threat and insisted that social distancing, crowd control and other health care measures will be enforced. 

To some degree they were, but that didn’t diminish the happiness of ordinary Iraqis — Christians and Muslims alike — that Francis had come to their home.

“We cannot express our joy because this for sure is a historic event which we will keep remembering,” said Rafif Issa. “All Iraqis are happy, not just the Christians. We hope it will be a blessed day for us and for all the Iraqi people.”

___

AP journalist Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed.

Joe Biden says U.S. looking for perpetrators of rocket attack in Iraq

Biden says U.S. looking for perpetrators of rocket attack in Iraq

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In this Feb. 27, 2021, photo, President Joe Biden speaks on the economy in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) more >

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By Dave Boyer

The Washington Times

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

President Biden said Wednesday the U.S. is assessing who’s responsible for a rocket attack on American forces in Iraq, and said “thank God” nobody was killed, before noting that a U.S. contractor died of a heart attack.

“We’re following that through right now,” Mr. Biden told reporters at the White House. “We’re identifying who is responsible and will make judgments from that point.”

Mr. Biden said “thank God, no one was killed by the rocket — one individual, a contractor, died of a heart attack.”

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The U.S. contractor died after about 10 rockets slammed into the airbase in western Iraq housing American, Iraqi and coalition forces. A Pentagon spokesman said the contractor was sheltering from the rockets when he died.

It was the first attack since the U.S. struck Iran-backed militia targets along the Iraq-Syria border last week in retaliation for an earlier rocket attack.

Rockets hit airbase in Iraq hosting U.S. troops

Contractor dead after rockets hit airbase in Iraq hosting U.S. troops

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This Dec. 29, 2019, aerial file photo taken from a helicopter shows Ain al-Asad air base in the western Anbar desert, Iraq. At least 10 rockets targeted a military base in western Iraq that hosts U.S.-led coalition troops on Wednesday, … more >

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By Mike Glenn and Ben Wolfgang

The Washington Times

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

A U.S. civilian contractor died Wednesday after at least 10 rockets were fired at a military base in western Iraq that houses U.S. troops. 

Pentagon officials said the contractor, whose identity has not yet been released, experienced a “cardiac episode” during the attack and later died. No U.S. service members were injured, Pentagon officials said.

“Iraqi security forces are on scene and investigating. We cannot attribute responsibility at this time, and we do not have a complete picture of the extent of the damage,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement. “We stand by as needed to assist our Iraqi partners as they investigate.”

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The barrage hit the Ain al-Asad airbase at 7:20 a.m. local time, and Mr. Kirby said the base’s missile defense systems “engaged in defense of our forces.”

Iraq‘s military later confirmed the attack did not cause significant losses and that security forces located the launch pad used for the missiles. An Iraqi military official told The Associated Press that it was located in the al-Baghdadi area of Anbar province.

Wednesday’s attack was the first since U.S. forces hit a compound in Syria last week that killed an Iranian-backed militia member. That U.S. strike came after a string of previous rocket attacks in the region, largely believed to have been orchestrated by Iran or its proxy militias.

Al-Asad previously was targeted by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in January 2020 in a missile attack that damaged several buildings. U.S. forces took cover after receiving word that the attack was imminent. Dozens of U.S. troops were injured, suffering concussions in the strike.

That attack came on the heels of a U.S. airstrike that killed top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

The string of recent attacks, and last week’s American airstrike on Iran-backed militias, comes as the Biden administration seeks to restart diplomatic talks with Tehran aimed at securing a deal to limit Iran’s nuclear program. So far, Iran has rejected the diplomatic olive branches offered by the White House.

U.S. forces: Rockets hit airbase in Iraq hosting American troops

U.S. forces: Rockets hit airbase in Iraq hosting American troops

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By Samya Kullab

Associated Press

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

BAGHDAD (AP) — At least 10 rockets targeted a military base in western Iraq that hosts U.S.-led coalition troops on Wednesday, the coalition and the Iraqi military said. It was not immediately known if there were any casualties.

The rockets struck Ain al-Asad airbase in Anbar province at 7:20 a.m., spokesman Col. Wayne Marotto said.

Later, the Iraqi military released a statement saying the attack did not cause significant losses and that security forces had found the launch pad used for the missiles. An Iraqi military official said they had been found in the al-Baghdadi area of Anbar, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to brief media.

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It was the first attack since the U.S. struck Iran-aligned militia targets along the Iraq-Syria border last week that killed one militiaman, stoking fears of a possible repeat of a series of tit-for-tat attacks that escalated last year, culminating in the U.S.-directed drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassim Soleimani outside the Baghdad airport.

Wednesday’s attack targeted the same base where Iran struck with a barrage of missiles in January last year in retaliation for the killing of Soleimani. Dozens of U.S. service members were injured, suffering concussions in that strike.

Denmark, which also has troops at the base, condemned the attack, saying that coalition forces at Ain al-Asad are there at the invitation of the Iraqi government, helping to bring stability and security to the country.

“Despicable attacks against Ain al-Asad base in #Iraq are completely unacceptable,” Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod tweeted. The Danish armed forces said two Danes, who were in the camp at the time of the attack, are unharmed.

Wednesday’s attack comes two days before Pope Francis’ is scheduled to visit Iraq in a much anticipated trip that will include Baghdad, southern Iraq and in the northern city of Irbil.

Last week’s U.S. strike along the border had been in response to a spate of rocket attacks that targeted the American presence, including one that killed a coalition contractor from the Philippines outside the Irbil airport.

After that attack, the Pentagon said the strike was a “proportionate military response” taken after consulting coalition partners.

Marotto said the Iraqi security forces were leading an investigation into the attack on Ain al-Asad.

U.S. troops in Iraq significantly decreased their presence in the country last year under the Trump administration. The forces withdrew from several Iraqi based across the country to consolidate chiefly in Ain al-Asad and Baghad.

Frequent rocket attacks targeting the heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses the U.S. Embassy, during President Donald Trump’s time in office frustrated the administration, leading to threats of embassy closure and escalatory strikes.

___

Associated Press writer Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, contributed to this report.

U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle jets used in strikes against Iran-backed militias, Pentagon says

U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle jets used in strikes against Iran-backed militias, Pentagon says

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By Mike Glenn

The Washington Times

Friday, February 26, 2021

A pair of U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jets dropped seven precision-guided munitions Thursday during airstrikes on a remote compound in eastern Syria used by Iranian-backed militias.

The strikes destroyed nine buildings in a compound along the border and damaged two others, Pentagon officials confirmed on Friday. The mission was in response to recent rocket attacks targeting American and allied forces in Iraq and to defend against ongoing threats from the Kait’ib Hezbollah (KH) and Kait’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada (KSS) militant groups.

“This location is known to facilitate Iranian-aligned militia group activity,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters. 

SEE ALSO: Russia, ally of Syria, fumes at U.S. airstrike against militia group

Mr. Kirby said he couldn’t confirm how many people on the ground were killed or wounded because the battle-damage assessment was still ongoing.

While some lawmakers have complained they didn’t know about the mission until afterwards, Pentagon officials said congressional leadership was notified before the strikes. Individual senators and U.S. representatives along with their staff were being briefed on Friday.

“There will be a full classified briefing early next week,” Mr. Kirby said.

Pentagon officials wouldn’t say where the U.S. mission originated. 

“The targets were chosen carefully — very deliberately — and struck in exactly the same manner,” Mr. Kirby said.

The Biden administration cited Article II of the Constitution — which identifies the president as commander-in-chief of the military — and Article 15 of the U.N. Charter in defending the mission’s legality under domestic and international law. 

“International law gives nations involved in operations the right to self defense,” Mr. Kirby said. “This really was a defensive strike meant to help protect in the future American forces and coalition partners given what we knew about what those structures were used for.”

The compound was a way station for militant groups like KH and KSS traveling from Syria into Iraq, officials said.

“We’re confident that these were legitimate targets that were utilized by groups associated with these recent attacks,” Mr. Kirby said.

The airstrikes were the end result of an investigation conducted by Iraqi military officials that began following a Feb. 13, 2021, barrage that landed three rockets in and around Erbil International Airport. The blast killed a civilian U.S. contractor — not an American citizen — and wounded a U.S. service member.

“It was very much a team effort. (Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin) was very sincere when he praised our Iraqi partners for the investigative and intelligence work that they did. There was some very good work done on the intelligence side that helped lead to this successful strike,” Mr. Kirby said. “We offered support and assistance. We were able to provide some information to their investigative process that helped.”

While U.S. officials say they’re confident Iran has been supporting the militia groups targeting American troops in Iraq, they said Thursday’s strike also was meant to send a broader message.

“We will defend ourselves. We will protect our interests and certainly act to protect our people and the forces of our allies and partners,” Mr. Kirby said. “That is an unambiguous and clear message to anyone in the region about what the stakes are if you’re going to continue to conduct attacks on our people and the Iraqi people,”

Tim Kaine: Congress needs to be briefed on U.S. airstrikes in Syria

Tim Kaine: Congress needs to be briefed on U.S. airstrikes in Syria

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By Mike Glenn

The Washington Times

Friday, February 26, 2021

Sen. Tim Kaine is calling on the Biden administration to brief Congress about the U.S. retaliatory airstrikes on Iranian-backed militia groups in Syria.

The strikes, the first-known combat operation since President Biden took office, were directed at a border control point used by militant groups such as Kait’ib Hezbollah that are supported by Tehran.

“The American people deserve to hear the administration’s rationale for these strikes and its legal justification for acting without coming to Congress,” said Mr. Kaine, Virginia Democrat.

SEE ALSO: U.S. airstrike hits Iran-backed militias in Syria

The airstrikes were a response to rocket attacks within the past two weeks on U.S. personnel in Iraq. The move was praised by Republicans in Congress such as Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas.

“Responses like this are a necessary deterrent and remind Iran, its proxies and our adversaries around the world that attacks on U.S. interests will not be tolerated,” Mr. McCaul said in a Twitter message.

Mr. Kaine has criticized the efforts by presidents to expand the use of military force without congressional authorization. He introduced legislation to repeal the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) against Iraq and replace the “open-ended” 2001 AUMF with one that was more narrowly focused. 

“Offensive military action without congressional approval is not constitutional absent extraordinary circumstances,” Mr. Kaine said. “Congress must be fully briefed on this matter expeditiously.”

EXPLAINER: US airstrike in Syria sends message to Iran

EXPLAINER: US airstrike in Syria sends message to Iran

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FILE – In this Feb. 17, 2021, file photo, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby speaks during a media briefing at the Pentagon in Washington. A U.S. airstrike targeting facilities used by Iran-backed militias in Syria appears to be a message to … more >

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By ZEINA KARAM and BASSEM MROUE

Associated Press

Friday, February 26, 2021

BEIRUT (AP) – A U.S. airstrike targeting facilities used by Iran-backed militias in Syria appears to be a message to Tehran delivered by a new American administration still figuring out its approach to the Middle East.

The strike was seemingly a response to stepped-up rocket attacks by such militias that have targeted U.S. interests in Iraq, where the armed groups are based. It comes even as Washington and Tehran consider a return to the 2015 accord meant to rein in Iran’s nuclear program.

The U.S. appears to have chosen the target, just across the border in Syria rather than in Iraq, carefully. It’s a way for President Joe Biden to signal he will be tough on Iran while avoiding a response that could offset the delicate balance in Iraq itself or trigger a wider confrontation.

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And it’s yet another example of how Syria, mired in civil war for the past decade, has often served as a proxy battlefield for world powers.

WHO ARE THE FORCES TARGETED BY THE US?

The U.S. airstrike – which took place Friday in Syria – targeted one of the most powerful Iran-backed militias in the Middle East known as Kataeb Hezbollah, or the Hezbollah Brigades. The group is part of the Popular Mobilization Forces, which includes an array of Iraqi militias.

The group was founded after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein. It is different from Lebanon’s Hezbollah, but the two groups are strong allies. In recent years, Kataeb Hezbollah has played a major role in the fight against the Islamic State group as well as helping President Bashar Assad’s forces in Syria’s conflict.

The group was founded by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a veteran Iraqi militant who was closely allied with Iran and killed in a U.S. drone attack in Baghdad in January 2020 along with Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force.

The U.S. has hit the group before: In December 2019, an American strike along the SyriaIraq border killed 25 of its fighters and wounded dozens. Washington called it retaliation for the death of an American contractor in a rocket attack that it blamed on Kataeb Hezbollah.

___

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR RELATIONS WITH IRAN?

The attack is likely aimed at sending a message to Tehran that the U.S. will not tolerate attacks against American interests in the region, while leaving the door open for talks.

It comes as the Biden administration faces an uncertain road in its attempts to resurrect the 2015 Iran nuclear deal – which gave Tehran billions of dollars in sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program and that the Trump administration pulled out of.

In the meantime, relations with Iran have been further strained as the country’s proxies become more assertive, with Iran-backed militias increasingly targeting U.S. interests and allies. That has rekindled worries that the standoff relations between the U.S. and Iran could end up being fought out in Iraq.

Already there are signs that Iraq is being used to fight a proxy war. Explosive-laden drones that targeted Saudi Arabia’s royal palace in the kingdom’s capital last month were launched from inside Iraq, a senior Iran-backed militia official in Baghdad and a U.S. official told The Associated Press this week.

___

WILL THIS TRIGGER A WIDER ESCALATION?

That is unlikely at this point.

Biden’s decision to attack in Syria does not appear to signal an intention to widen U.S. military involvement in the region, but rather to demonstrate a will to defend U.S. troops in Iraq while also avoiding embarrassing the Iraqi government, a U.S. ally, by striking on its territory.

Pentagon Spokesman John Kirby said the operation in Boukamal, Syria, sends an unambiguous message: “President Biden will act to protect American and coalition personnel. At the same time, we have acted in a deliberate manner that aims to deescalate the overall situation in eastern Syria and Iraq.”

A Syrian commentator based in Turkey, Abdulkader Dwehe, said the choice of Syria was a wise one.

“Responding in Iraq could open a front that may be hard to close,” he tweeted following the attack. “With the Boukamal strike, a valuable point, and a political message rather than a military one, have been made.”

___

FOLLOWING IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF OTHER US PRESIDENTS

In its first weeks, the new Biden administration has emphasized its intent to put its focus on the challenges posed by China – even as volatility and threats to U.S. interests persist in the Middle East.

But the operation proved the region is never far from a U.S. president’s agenda.

By striking Syria, Biden joins every American president from Ronald Reagan onward who has ordered a bombardment of countries in the Middle East.

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By Stephen Dinan

The Washington Times

Monday, February 15, 2021

Ali had been anxiously eyeing the first days of the Biden administration, counting on the president’s promises of a new era in immigration to clear hurdles and help him get the visa he’s been seeking for years, as a reward for helping the U.S. war effort in Iraq.

But two days into the new administration, those hopes were dashed when the State Department announced an emergency pause on the special Iraqi refugee program.

Prosecutors had just revealed an almost unthinkable internal security breach: Two Homeland Security employees had been selling secret files from the Iraqi program for years, leaving security experts to figure out the damage, and the State Department to try to cauterize the wound.

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The scam also left those like Ali — a pseudonym The Washington Times is using to protect his identity — worried about what bad guys might now know about him.

“I was literally counting the days of Trump’s presidency term and wishing Biden wins the election to resume the program so we can finally get our freedom and restore our normal life,” Ali told The Times in an email. “Now with this news I receive another shock to be added to my life’s tragedy.”

The criminal case has exposed staggering gaps in security at Homeland Security’s legal immigration agency, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

According to court documents, a Jordanian and a Russian working at U.S. embassies for USCIS used their jobs to gain access to the refugee database. They then sold information to an Iraqi man who’d failed in his own refugee claims, and was now living in Jordan.

Haitham Sad, who worked for USCIS at the embassy in Amman, pleaded guilty just days after the charges were announced. He said in his plea that he worked for the agency from 2007 through 2016 but managed to keep access to the database even after his termination, selling files to Aws Muwafaq Abduljabbar, the Iraqi ringleader of the fraud.

Along the way they recruited another USCIS employee, Olesya Krasilova, who worked at the U.S. embassy in Moscow and to whom the two men referred as the “female doctor.”

She and Mr. Sad stole hundreds of files, and were paid tens of thousands of dollars, Mr. Sad said. They also tried to recruit other USCIS employees,

“It’s very good money, for nothing,” Ms. Krasilova told one recruiting target in 2019.

Sources told The Times the goal was not, as Ali feared, to glean information that could be used to exact retribution against those who helped the U.S. Instead, the scammers were trying to exploit America’s generosity to pave a path for undeserving people.

Having access to the case files from successful applications gave the fraudsters a template to help others craft their own applications, cutting out information that had sunk others and highlighting the factors that had worked in previous cases.

“These guys were seeing applications and write-ups of those who were successfully able to establish eligibility, and basically take those narratives and repurpose them for others,” said Rob Law, the past chief of policy at USCIS. “People adopt similar stories, once someone is found to successfully navigate the system.”

Key to the scam was a security flaw in the refugee database that Mr. Sad and Ms. Krasilova were able to exploit. While the current refugee database system is known as WRAPS II, the older version, WRAPS I, was still operational and could access the same information, without leaving digital fingerprints.

It was only in 2019 that an update added an audit feature that allowed managers to look back to see who’d accessed files, and investigators were able to piece together the scam.

Top Republicans on the House’s Homeland Security and Foreign Affairs committees have demanded secret briefings on what went wrong, calling it a “sophisticated insider threat.”

“When employees of the United States Government are abusing their power to undermine the integrity of these critical programs for nefarious purposes, this represents a significant breach of public trust and erosion of homeland security,” said Rep. John Katko, the ranking homeland security Republican.

The two USCIS employees were what’s known in government-speak as foreign service nationals or locally-employed staff (FNS/LES), and were part of a program that used locals to help process refugee checks.

Even before the latest revelations, USCIS had been cutting its FSN/LES staff. The agency said it now has 19 such employees. The agency declined to talk more about the breach, citing the ongoing criminal investigation.

Mr. Law, now director of regulatory affairs and policy at the Center for Immigration Studies, said he expects more revelations about the extent of the fraud.

“What’s being currently reported as being uncovered is potentially just the beginning,” he said.

He also said the scam should be a caution to the Biden administration as it seeks to unwind former President Donald Trump’s strict vetting of refugees and other foreign arrivals.

Mr. Trump imposed the tougher rules after several striking cases of refugees accused of joining jihadist movements. Among them was Aws Mohammed Younis Al-Jayab, who just months after his arrival in the U.S. in 2012 began plotting to join Ansar Al-Islam in Syria.

“The Biden administration may want to really think twice about undoing everything that was done in this space, because there are bad actors out there,” said Mr. Law.

The Iraqi refugee program is one of two paths for Iraqis who helped with the U.S. war effort. The other is a special immigrant visa reserved specifically for those who performed translation duties.

Both programs are relatively small at this point.

Just 63 cases involving 161 people were resettled in the U.S. in fiscal 2020, which spanned Oct. 1, 2019, to Sept. 30, 2020. In the four months after through, through Jan. 31, another 38 people were admitted. Only one was from the special refugee program.

Ali was hoping to be one of them.

He said he worked as an interpreter for U.S. forces in 2005, but left after he saw too many colleagues assassinated and faced too many threats himself.

When the U.S. announced the special pathways, he was eager to apply. But one of the hurdles is having a senior U.S. military commander vouch for your services, and Ali said he spent years trying to track down an email for someone who could do so.

Once he did apply, he thought things were “moving well” before Mr. Trump’s ascension to the White House, which he thought derailed things again.

Mike Jabbar, a translator who arrived in the U.S. as a refugee in 2019, during the Trump years, said the problem wasn’t Mr. Trump, it was the way Congress wrote the program.

In the middle of the last decade, during the Obama years, the number of special visas was cut dramatically. Some lawmakers fought to restore them, but the lion’s share goes to those helping with the effort in Afghanistan, not Iraq, Mr. Jabbar said.

He also said fraud is rife in the program — including forged documentation claiming they helped the Defense Department.

“Believe me, it’s happened in the past,” he said. “People have immigrated from those countries to the U.S., they have never worked for the U.S. government but they somehow managed to come up with all this fake paperwork.”

Mr. Jabbar said it was frustrating to see family migration cases from Iraq getting approved while people he knew risked their lives for the U.S. were stuck waiting on refugee slots.

“Why does somebody who doesn’t know how to speak English get their visa approved because she fell in love with a dude online, and she’s going to the [United] States before me?” he wondered.

UN: Bring home kids from Syria with possible extremist links

UN: Bring home kids from Syria with possible extremist links

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By EDITH M. LEDERER

Associated Press

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

UNITED NATIONS (AP) – The U.N. counter-terrorism chief on Wednesday urged the repatriation of tens of thousands of women and children suspected of links to the Islamic State extremist group, warning that many are being radicalized in deteriorating detention camps in Syria and Iraq.

Vladimir Voronkov told the U.N. Security Council that nearly two years after the defeat of the militant extremists on the ground “some 27,500 foreign children are still in harms way” in camps in northeastern Syria, including about 8,000 from some 60 countries other than Iraq. He said 90% of them are under age 12.

Tragically, Voronkov said, the international community has made “hardly any progress” in addressing the issue of these children and women even though the “challenges and risks are growing more serious with neglect, and could have a long-term impact not just in the region but globally.”

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His call for action was echoed by Jeffrey DeLaurentis, an acting U.S. deputy ambassador who spoke on behalf of President Joe Biden’s new administration. He said Biden is committed to working with the international coalition that the U.S. established in 2014 to rout the Islamic State group from Iraq and Syria, “to ensure this terrorist group is defeated on a lasting and comprehensive basis.”

“We watch with concern as women and children languish in camps in dire conditions with little access to education, increasing the potential for their radicalization,” DeLaurentis said.

He warned that the global threat from Islamic State extremists “will grow if the international community does not repatriate their citizens.”

Voronkov said that “the already dire humanitarian and security situation in the detention facilities and displacement camps is deteriorating even further, especially in Al-Hol camp” in northeastern Syria.

“The most basic of human rights are undermined,” he said. “Many instances of terrorist radicalization, fund-raising training and incitement have been reported.”

According to a report last week from U.N. experts monitoring sanctions against the Islamic State group, there are approximately 65,000 residents in Al-Hol, vastly more than its intended capacity, but the number of guards fell from 1,500 in mid-2019 to 400 in late 2020.

The panel of experts said some 10,000 foreign women and children are in an Al-Hol annex, where some minors “are reportedly being indoctrinated and prepared to become future … operatives” for the Islamic State group.

At another camp in northeastern Syria called Roj, where the conditions are more comfortable but security is “more intrusive and effective,” the panel said the cost of being smuggled out “to a safe destination has been reported at approximately $14,000 compared with between $2,500 and $3,000 from Hol.”

Voronkov told the Security Council that in October the Islamic State group reiterated “that orchestrating jailbreaks and assisting escapees was a priority.”

He commended Kazakhstan, Russia and Uzbekistan for bringing home hundreds of children from Syria. He urged other countries, especially in Europe, that have carried out fewer repatriations, to “actively step up their efforts.”

Voronkov also warned that some 10,000 Islamic State fighters, “including foreign terrorist fighters in the low thousands, remain active in the region, the majority of them in Iraq, pursuing a protracted insurgency.”

The panel of experts said an unidentified country estimated in November that there were approximately 11,000 male IS fighters detained in northeastern Syria, including 1,700 from foreign countries, 1,600 Iraqis, 5,000 Syrians and 2,500 “of unknown nationality.” They said 100 male minors were held at the Houri camp.

Twin suicide bombings rock central Baghdad, at least 28 dead

Twin suicide bombings rock central Baghdad, at least 28 dead

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Security forces work at the site of a deadly bomb attack in Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. Iraq’s military said twin suicide bombings at the Bab al-Sharqi commercial area in central Baghdad Thursday ripped through the busy market killing … more >

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By Samya Kullab and Qassim Abdul-Zahra

Associated Press

Thursday, January 21, 2021

BAGHDAD (AP) — Twin suicide bombings ripped through a busy market in the Iraqi capital Thursday, killing at least 28 people and wounding 73 others, officials said. 

The rare suicide bombing attack hit the Bab al-Sharqi commercial area in central Baghdad amid heightened political tensions over planned early elections and a severe economic crisis.

Blood smeared the floors of the busy market amid piles of clothes and shoes as survivors took stock of the disarray in the aftermath. 

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No one immediately took responsibility for the attack, but Iraqi military officials said it was the work of the Islamic State group. 

Iraq‘s military said at least 28 people were killed and 73 wounded in the attack and said some of the injured were in serious condition. Several health and police officials said the toll might be higher. They spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. 

The Health Ministry announced all of its hospitals in the capital were mobilized to treat the wounded.

Maj. Gen. Tahsin al-Khafaji, spokesman for the Joint Operations Command, which includes an array of Iraqi forces, said the first suicide bomber cried out loudly that he was ill in the middle of the bustling market, prompting a crowd to gather around him — and that’s when he detonated his explosive belt. The second detonated his belt shortly after, he said. 

“This is a terrorist act perpetrated by a sleeper cell of the Islamic State,” al-Khafaji said. He said IS “wanted to prove its existence” after suffering many blows in military operations to root out the militants. 

The suicide bombings marked the first in three years to target Baghdad’s bustling commercial area. A suicide bomb attack took place in the same area in 2018 shortly after then-Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi declared victory over the Islamic State group. 

No one immediately took responsibility for Thursday’s attack, but Iraq has seen assaults perpetrated by both the Islamic State group and militia groups in recent months. 

Militias have routinely targeted the American presence in Iraq with rocket and mortar attacks, especially the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone. The pace of those attacks, however, has decreased since an informal truce was declared by Iran-backed armed groups in October. 

The style of Thursday’s assault was similar to those IS has conducted in the past. But the group has rarely been able to penetrate the capital since being dislodged by Iraqi forces and the U.S.-led coalition in 2017. 

IS has shown an ability to stage increasingly sophisticated attacks across northern Iraq, where it still maintains a presence three years after Iraq declared victory over the group. 
Iraqi security forces are frequently ambushed and targeted with IEDs in rural areas of Kirkuk and Diyala. An increase in attacks was seen last summer as militants took advantage of the government’s focus on tackling the coronavirus pandemic. 

The twin bombings Thursday came days after Iraq‘s government unanimously agreed to hold early elections in October. Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi had announced in July that early polls would be held to meet the demands of anti-government protesters.

Demonstrators took to the streets in the tens of thousands last year to demand political change, and an end to rampant corruption and poor services. More than 500 people were killed in mass demonstrations as security forces used live rounds and tear gas to disperse crowds.

Iraq is also grappling with a severe economic crisis brought on by low oil prices that has led the government to borrow internally and risk depleting its foreign currency reserves. The Central Bank of Iraq devalued Iraq‘s dinar by nearly 20% last year to meet spending obligations. 

___

Associated Press writer Murtada Faraj contributed. 

Officials: Suicide bombs rock central Baghdad, 6 dead

Officials: Suicide bombs rock central Baghdad, 6 dead

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People and security forces gather at the site of a deadly bomb attack in Baghdad’s bustling commercial area, Iraq, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. Twin suicide bombings hit Iraq’s capital Thursday killing and wounding civilians, police and state TV said. (AP … more >

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By Murtada Faraj

Associated Press

Thursday, January 21, 2021

BAGHDAD (AP) — Twin suicide bombings hit Iraq’s capital Thursday killing at least six people and wounding at least 25 others, police and state TV said.

Three police officials said two explosions hit a commercial center in central Baghdad. Iraqi state television reported they were suicide bombings. Many of the wounded were in serious condition and there was property damage.

The police officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

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The bombings are the first in years to target Baghdad’s bustling commercial area. They come amid heightened political tensions as Iraq looks to have early elections in October.

The perpetrators were not immediately known. Iraq has seen attacks perpetrated by both the Islamic State group and militia groups in recent months.

Militias have routinely targeted the American presence with rocket and mortar attacks, especially the U.S. Embassy in the heavily fortified Green Zone. The pace of the attacks has decreased since an informal truce was declared by Iran-backed armed groups in October.

The Islamic State group has perpetrated similar attacks in the past but has rarely been able to target the capital since being dislodged by Iraqi forces and the U.S.-led coalition in 2017 battles.

Amid crippling sanctions, Iran traders seek lifeline in Iraq

Amid crippling sanctions, Iran traders seek lifeline in Iraq

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Piles of plush Iranian- made carpets line the floors of a shopping center in northern Iraq, hosting traders from neighbouring Iran, in the city of Dohuk, in the Kurdish-run northern region of Iraq, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. At least 24 … more >

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By RASHID YAHYA and SAMYA KULLAB

Associated Press

Thursday, January 21, 2021

DOHUK, Iraq (AP) – Piles of plush carpets line the floors of a northern Iraq shopping center hosting traders from neighboring Iran who hope the spangle of their ornate handicrafts might offer a lifeline out of poverty.

In their own country, the economy is in tatters amid crippling U.S. sanctions.

“Our money is so devalued, so when we come to this side – apart from the cultural exchange that we share – from a financial perspective it’s more profitable for us,” said Iranian Ramiyar Parwiz, the organizer of the exhibition who is originally from Sanandaj. “The money we receive … whether in dollars or dinars has a higher value on our side and it’s worth a lot.”

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At least 24 businesses from 15 Iranian cities set up shop this week in the city of Dohuk in the Kurdish-run northern region of Iraq. From Sanandaj to Bijar, they brought luxurious carpets. From Isfahan, Yazd and Hamadan, precious gems, copper and pottery.

Iran is among Iraq’s largest trading partners and this cooperation has deepened since 2018 amid the Trump administration’s maximalist policy on Iran that has seen the U.S. pull out of Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers and levy punishing sanctions on the country.

Tens of thousands of Iranian pilgrims visit holy sites in Najaf and Karbala every year, boosting Iraq’s fledgling tourism sector. Over 100 trucks ferry construction materials, food, medicine and appliances into Iraq every day.

The dependence on Iraqi markets has only deepened as economic conditions worsen in Iran. U.S. sanctions bar American companies and foreign firms from dealing with Iran affecting Iran‘s energy, shipping and financial sectors, causing foreign investment to dry up.

Oil exports have been hardest hit and Iran’s economy contracted with dreary forecasts for the future. Unemployment rose and rural populations were disproportionately affected.

The exhibition of Iranian businesses is typically held every year in the city of Sulimaniyah, which borders Iran. This is the first year the traders have ventured to Dohuk, which shares closer economic ties to neighboring Turkey, in hopes of enticing new customers and creating greater demand for Iranian goods.

Parwiz said the Dohuk venture was the result of desperation.

“There is huge pressure on people (in Iran), and the cost of living is unimaginably high,” he said. “We can’t afford to buy anything, we cannot even afford to buy medicine.”

For Iranian businessmen experiencing difficult times, Iraq has always offered hope for respite.

Haji Tousi, a businessman from Mashhad, sells his fine carpets at a lower price than local Iraqi traders. He knows the dollars he takes back home to Iran will keep him afloat.

“The type of carpet we are selling here is $200, whereas the same carpet in the market here is sold for $300-350,” he said.

But, to the dismay of many Iranian traders, the impact of Iraq’s own economic troubles was in plain sight: The exhibition attracts crowds of visitors but many can’t afford the marked-down items.

“There are many visitors who have warmly welcomed this expo but economic problems have kept them from (purchasing) ,” said Maryam Mradi, a businesswoman from Sanadaj.

Iraq is grappling with an unprecedented liquidity crisis brought on by low oil prices. That has slashed state coffers in half and led the government to borrow from the central bank’s foreign currency reserves to make salary payments.

Some of the Iranian vendors were skeptical their goods would be well received in Dohuk and other areas of Iraq, where Turkish brands dominate shopping isles.

“The people’s demand is mainly for Turkish goods,” said Shireen Mohammed, a local resident.

___

Kullab reported from Baghdad.

Biden charts new US direction, promises many Trump reversals

Biden charts new US direction, promises many Trump reversals

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President-elect Joe Biden and his wife Jill Biden arrive for a COVID-19 memorial event at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) more >

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By BILL BARROW

Associated Press

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

WASHINGTON (AP) – Stop. Stabilize. Then move – but in a vastly different direction.

President-elect Joe Biden is pledging a new path for the nation after Donald Trump’s four years in office. That starts with confronting a pandemic that has killed 400,000 Americans and extends to sweeping plans on health care, education, immigration and more.

The 78-year-old Democrat has pledged immediate executive actions that would reverse Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement and rescind the outgoing president’s ban on immigration from certain Muslim nations.

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His first legislative priority is a $1.9 trillion pandemic response package, but there are plans to send an immigration overhaul to Capitol Hill out of the gate, as well.

He’s also pledged an aggressive outreach to American allies around the world who had strained relationships with Trump. And though one key initiative has been overshadowed as the pandemic has worsened, Biden hasn’t backed away from his call to expand the 2010 Affordable Care Act with a public option, a government-insurance plan to compete alongside private insurers.

It’s an unapologetically liberal program reflecting Biden‘s argument that the federal government exists to help solve big problems. Persuading enough voters and members of Congress to go along will test another core Biden belief: that he can unify the country into a governing consensus.

What a Biden presidency could look like:

ECONOMY, TAXES AND THE DEBT

Biden argues the economy cannot fully recover until the coronavirus is contained.

He argues that his $1.9 trillion response plan is necessary to avoid extended recession. Among other provisions, it would send Americans $1,400 relief checks, extend more generous unemployment benefits and moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures, and boost businesses. Biden also wants expanded child tax credits, child care assistance and a $15-an-hour minimum wage – a provision sure to draw fierce Republican opposition.

Biden acknowledges his call for deficit spending but says higher deficits in the near term will prevent damage that would not only harm individuals but also weaken the economy in ways that would be even worse for the national balance sheet.

He also calls his plan a down payment on his pledge to address wealth inequality that disproportionately affects nonwhite Americans. He plans a second major economic package later in 2021; that’s when he’d likely ask Congress to consider his promised tax overhauls to roll back parts of the 2017 GOP tax rewrite benefiting corporations and the wealthy.

Biden wants a corporate income tax rate of 28% – lower than before but higher than now – and broad income and payroll tax increases for individuals with more than $400,000 of annual taxable income. That would generate an estimated $4 trillion or more over 10 years, money Biden would want steered toward his infrastructure, health care and energy programs.

Before Biden proposed his pandemic relief bill, an analysis from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimated that Biden’s campaign proposals would increase the national debt by about $5.6 trillion over 10 years, though that would be a significantly slower rate of increase than what occurred under Trump.

The national debt now stands at more than $25 trillion.

___

CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC

Biden promises a more robust national coronavirus vaccination system. Ditching Trump’s strategy of putting most of the pandemic response on governors’ desks, Biden says he’ll marshal the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Guard to distribute vaccines while using the nation’s network of private pharmacies.

As he said as a candidate, Biden plans to invoke the Defense Production Act, aimed at the private sector, to increase vaccine supplies and related materials. The wartime law allows a president to direct the manufacture of critical goods.

Much of Biden’s plans depend on Congress approving financing, such as $130 billion to help schools reopen safely.

Beyond legislation, Biden will require masks on all federal property, urge governors and mayors to use their authority to impose mask mandates and ask Americans for 100 days of mask-wearing in an effort to curb the virus.

Biden also promises to deviate from Trump by putting science and medical advisers front and center to project a consistent message. Meanwhile, Biden will immediately have the U.S. rejoin the World Health Organization.

The incoming White House has tried to manage expectations. Biden said several times in recent weeks that the pandemic would likely get worse before any changes in policy and public health practices show up in COVID-19 statistics.

___

HEALTH CARE

Biden wants to build on President Barack Obama’s signature health care law through a “Medicare-like public option” to compete alongside private insurance markets for working-age Americans. He’d also increase premium subsidies many people already use.

Biden‘s approach could get a kick-start in the pandemic response bill by expanding subsidies for consumers using existing ACA exchanges. The big prize, a “public option,” remains a heavy lift in a closely divided Congress. Biden has not detailed when he’d ask Congress to consider the matter.

Biden estimates his public option would cost about $750 billion over 10 years. It still stops short of progressives’ call for a government-run system to replace private insurance altogether.

The administration also must await a Supreme Court decision on the latest case challenging the 2010 health care law known as “Obamacare.”

On prescription drugs, Biden supports allowing Medicare to negotiate prices for government programs and private payers. He’d prohibit drug companies from raising prices faster than inflation for people covered by Medicare and other federal programs; and he’d cap initial prices for “specialty drugs” to treat serious illnesses.

Biden would limit annual out-of-pocket drug costs for Medicare enrollees, a change Trump sought unsuccessfully in Congress. And Biden also wants to allow importation of prescription drugs, subject to safety checks.

___

IMMIGRATION

Biden plans to immediately reinstate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which allowed people brought to the U.S. illegally as children to remain as legal residents. He’s also planning an Inauguration Day executive order rolling back Trump’s ban on certain Muslim immigrants and has pledged to rescind Trump’s limits on asylum slots.

Additionally, Biden will send Congress, out of the gate, a complex immigration bill offering an eight-year path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people living in the U.S. without legal status.

As a candidate, Biden called Trump’s hard-line policies on immigration an “unrelenting assault” on American values and promised to “undo the damage” while maintaining border enforcement. Notably, the outline of Biden‘s immigration bill doesn’t deal much, if at all, with border enforcement. But his opening maneuver sets a flank with plenty of room to negotiate with Republicans.

Biden also pledged to end the Trump’s “public charge rule,” which would deny visas or permanent residency to people who use public-aid programs. Biden has called for a 100-day freeze on deportations while considering long-term policies. Still, Biden would eventually restore an Obama-era policy of prioritizing removal of immigrants who have come to the U.S. illegally and have been convicted of crimes or pose a national security threat. Biden has said he would halt all funding for construction of new walls along the U.S.-Mexico border.

___

FOREIGN POLICY AND NATIONAL SECURITY

Biden‘s establishment credentials are most starkly different from Trump in the area of foreign policy. Biden mocked Trump’s “America First” brand as “America alone” and promises to restore a more traditional post-World War II order.

He supports a strategy of fighting extremist militants abroad with U.S. special forces and airstrikes instead of planeloads of U.S. troops. That’s a break from his support earlier in his political career for more sweeping U.S. military interventions, most notably the 2003 Iraq invasion. Biden has since called his Iraq vote in the Senate a mistake.

He was careful as a candidate never to rule out the use of force, but now leans directly into diplomacy to try to achieve solutions through alliances and global institutions.

Biden calls for increasing the Navy’s presence in the Asia-Pacific and strengthening alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia and Indonesia. He joins Trump in wanting to end the wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan, but thinks the U.S. should keep a small force in place to counter militant violence.

Secretary of State-designate Tony Blinken is Biden‘s longest-serving foreign policy adviser and holds essentially the same worldview.

Both are strong supporters of NATO. Biden and Blinken warn that Moscow is chipping away at the foundation of Western democracy by trying to weaken NATO, divide the European Union and undermine the U.S. electoral system.

Biden believes Trump’s abandonment of bilateral and international treaties such as the Iran nuclear deal have led other nations to doubt Washington’s word. Biden wants to invite all democratic nations to a summit during his first year to discuss how to fight corruption, thwart authoritarianism and support human rights.

He claims “ironclad” support for Israel but wants to curb annexation and has backed a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians. He says he’d keep the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem after Trump moved it from Tel Aviv.

On North Korea, Biden criticized Trump for engaging directly with Kim Jong Un, saying it gave legitimacy to the authoritarian leader without curbing his nuclear program.

Biden also wants to see the U.S. close its detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; Obama pushed the same and never got it done.

___

ENVIRONMENT

Beyond immediately rejoining the Paris climate agreement, Biden has proposed a $2 trillion push to slow global warming by throttling back the burning of fossil fuels, aiming to make the nation’s power plants, vehicles, mass transport systems and buildings more fuel efficient and less dependent on oil, gas and coal.

Parts of his program could be included in the second sweeping legislative package Biden plans after the initial emergency pandemic legislation.

Biden says his administration would ban new permits for oil and gas production on federal lands, though he says he does not support a fracking ban.

Biden’s public health and environmental platform also calls for reversing the Trump administration’s slowdown of enforcement against polluters, which in several categories has fallen to the lowest point in decades. That would include establishing a climate and environmental justice division within the Justice Department. Biden says he would support climate lawsuits targeting fossil fuel-related industries.

___

EDUCATION

Biden has proposed tripling the federal Title I program for low-income public schools, with a requirement that schools provide competitive pay and benefits to teachers. He wants to ban federal money for for-profit charter schools and provide new dollars to public charters only if they serve needy students. He opposes voucher programs, in which public money is used to pay for private-school education. He also wants to restore federal rules, rolled back under Trump, that denied federal money to for-profit colleges that left students with heavy debts and unable to find jobs.

Biden supports making two years of community college free, with public four-year colleges free for families with incomes below $125,000. His proposed student loan overhaul would not require repayment for people who make less than $25,000 a year and would limit payments to 5% of discretionary income for others.

Among the measures in his COVID-19 response plan, Biden calls for extending current freezes on student loan payments and debt accrual.

Long term, Biden proposes a $70 billion increase in funding for historically Black colleges and universities, and other schools that serve underrepresented students.

___

ABORTION

Biden supports abortion rights and has said he would nominate federal judges who back the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. He’s also said he’d support a federal statute legalizing abortion if the Supreme Court’s conservative majority strikes down Roe.

Biden committed to rescinding Trump’s family planning rule, which prompted many clinics to leave the federal Title X program providing birth control and medical care for low-income women.

In a personal reversal, Biden now supports repeal of the Hyde Amendment, opening the way for federal programs, including his prospective public option, to pay for abortions.

___

SOCIAL SECURITY

Biden‘s proposals would expand benefits, raise taxes for upper-income people and add some years of solvency.

He would revamp Social Security’s annual cost-of-living adjustment by linking it to an inflation index tied more directly to older Americans’ expenses. He would increase minimum benefits for lower-income retirees, addressing financial hardship among the elderly.

Biden wants to raise Social Security taxes by applying the payroll tax to earnings above $400,000. The 12.4% tax, split between an employee and employer, now applies only to the first $137,700 of a worker’s wages. The tax increase would pay for Biden’s proposed benefit expansions and extend the life of program’s trust fund by five years, to 2040, according to the nonpartisan Urban Institute.

___

GUNS

Biden led efforts as a senator to establish the background check system now in use when people buy guns from a federal licensed dealer. He also helped pass a 10-year ban on a group of semi-automatic guns, or “assault weapons,” during the Clinton presidency.

Biden has promised to seek another ban on the manufacture and sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Owners would have to register existing assault weapons with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. He would also support a program to buy back assault weapons.

Biden supports legislation restricting the number of firearms an individual may purchase per month to one and would require background checks for all gun sales with limited exceptions, such as gifts between family members. Biden would also support prohibiting all online sales of firearms, ammunition, kits and gun parts.

As with his public option plan for health insurance, it’s not clear how Biden will prioritize gun legislation, and the prospects of getting major changes through the Senate are slim, at best.

___

VETERANS

Biden says he’d work with Congress to improve health services for women, the military’s fastest-growing subgroup, such as by placing at least one full-time women’s primary care physician at each Department of Veterans Affairs’ medical center.

He promises to provide $300 million to better understand the impact of traumatic brain injury and toxic exposures, hire more VA staff to cut down on office wait times for veterans at risk of suicide and continue the efforts of the Obama-Biden administration to stem homelessness.

___

TRADE

Biden has joined a growing bipartisan embrace of “fair trade” abroad – a twist on decades of “free trade” talk as Republican and Democratic administrations alike expanded international trade. That, and some of his policy pitches, can make Biden seem almost protectionist, but he’s well shy of Trump’s approach.

Biden, like Trump, accuses China of violating international trade rules by subsidizing its companies and stealing U.S. intellectual property. Still, Biden doesn’t think Trump’s tariffs worked. He wants to join with allies to form a bulwark against Beijing.

Biden wants to juice U.S. manufacturing with $400 billion of federal government purchases (including pandemic supplies) from domestic companies over a four-year period. He wants $300 billion for U.S. technology firms’ research and development. Biden says the new domestic spending must come before any new international trade deals.

He pledges tough negotiations with China, the world’s other economic superpower, on trade and intellectual property matters. China, like the U.S., is not yet a member of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the multilateral trade agreement that Biden advocated for when he was vice president.

___

TRUMP

Biden won’t escape Trump’s shadow completely, given the many investigations and potential legal exposures facing the outgoing president. Biden said as a candidate that he wouldn’t pardon Trump or his associates and that he’d leave federal investigations up to “an independent Justice Department.” Notably, some of Trump’s legal exposure comes from state cases in New York. Biden will have no authority over any of those matters.

___

Associated Press writers Will Weissert, Kevin Freking, Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Ben Fox, Deb Riechmann, Collin Binkley and Hope Yen contributed to this report.

World warily watches America’s postelection aftershocks

World warily watches America’s postelection aftershocks

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FILE – In this Jan. 6, 2021, file photo, a woman draped in an American flag walks past a banner supporting President Donald Trump during a rally in Huntington Beach, Calif. For America’s allies and rivals alike, the chaos unfolding … more >

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By LORI HINNANT

Associated Press

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

PARIS (AP) – For America’s allies and rivals alike, the chaos unfolding during Donald Trump‘s final days as president is the logical result of four years of global instability brought on by the man who promised to change the way the world viewed the United States.

From the outside, the United States has never looked so vulnerable – or unpredictable.

Alliances that had held for generations frayed to a breaking point under Trump – from his decision to back out of the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal, to quitting the World Health Organization amid a pandemic.

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And then, by seeking to overturn his loss to Joe Biden, Trump upended the bedrock principle of democratic elections that the United States has tried – and sometimes even succeeded – in exporting around the world. How long those aftershocks could endure is unclear.

“It is one of the biggest tasks of the future for America and Europe – to fight the polarization of society at its roots,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said. “We will only be able to preserve the belief in togetherness, in democracy as the most humane form of statehood, and the conviction in science and reason if we do it together.”

But in many ways Europe has already moved on, forging ahead on the deal with Iran, negotiating a trade agreement with China spearheaded by Germany, and organizing global actions to protect the environment.

On the same day an angry mob stormed the Capitol to try to overturn the presidential election won by Biden, a record number of Americans died of coronavirus. One other recent event also showed U.S. vulnerability: the cyberespionage operation still working its way through an untold number of government computers and blamed on elite Russian hackers.

World leaders who saw the deadly violence in Washington “will need to consider whether these events are an outlier event – a ‘black swan’ – or whether these extremist white supremacist groups will continue to be a significant influence on the direction of U.S. foreign and domestic policy, instead of receding with the end of the Trump administration,” the Soufan Group, a global intelligence and security firm, wrote Tuesday.

People tend to think of fragile countries “in terms of war as the biggest problem, rather than violence, and thinking in terms of state collapse as the biggest problem rather than states that internally disintegrate,” said Rachel Kleinfeld, a scholar of democracy and violence at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Kleinfeld, like many others, said the assault on the U.S. Capitol may have come to a head in a matter of weeks but was years in the making.

And the U.S. capacity to fight for democracy was already tarnished before the mob egged on by Trump sought to overturn his election loss. For many, those events were merely confirmation.

Adversaries including Russia, China and Iran used the violence to question U.S. democracy more generally.

In an internal note on the State Department’s “dissent channel” obtained by The Associated Press, American diplomats said Trump’s actions had made their job harder. “It is critical that we communicate to the world that in our system, no one – not even the president – is above the law or immune from public criticism,” the note said. “This would be a first step towards repairing the damage to our international credibility.”

Trump showed no contrition, however, saying Tuesday his fiery rally remarks to supporters were “totally appropriate.”

In Iraq, a country that still struggles with the controversial legacy of a U.S.-led invasion in the name of democracy, many people followed the Washington events with a mixture of shock and fascination.

Then-U.S. President George W. Bush boasted that Iraq would become a model of democracy in a region ruled by dictators. Instead, the country fell into protracted war between Sunnis and Shiites in which tens of thousands of people died. Although it has an active parliament and regular elections, it is a dysfunctional democracy based on a sectarian power sharing agreement, with corrupt parties haggling over ministries and posts so they can give jobs to supporters while lining their own pockets.

Ahmad al-Helfi, a 39-year-old Iraqi political cartoonist, said what happened at the U.S. Capitol is a blow to the democracy it tried to bring to Iraq and other countries.

“By mobilizing his followers in an effort to overturn the results of the election, Trump confirmed that instead of exporting democracy to Iraq, America imported the chaos, non-peaceful transition of power, and failure to accept election results,” al-Helfi said.

Anahita Thoms, a German lawyer and trade expert who spent years living and working in the United States, said last week’s events would indelibly mark America’s image abroad. Thoms is a board member of the Atlantic Bridge, a think tank promoting cooperation between Europe and the U.S. – the kind of organization founded in the aftermath of World War II when the U.S. helped to rebuild the economies of many countries in western Europe that had been destroyed by the war.

Germany was one country that benefited the most from those U.S. financial and democracy-building efforts.

Looking ahead, she said American officials may have a tougher time promoting democracy abroad.

“The U.S. remains a country that lives its democratic values. But this aspiration, which is presented very strongly to the outside world, mustn’t get too many cracks,” Thoms said. “I think a lot of diplomatic skill is going to be necessary to counter those pictures.”

The International Crisis Group, which normally focuses on global war zones, wrote its first assessment ever about the risk of election-related violence in the United States in October. Stephen Pomper, who helped lead the work on the report and lives in the D.C. area, said in the best of circumstances, the United States could eventually point to the decision of Congress to resume certification of Biden‘s election after the breach as a first step in successfully protecting its democracy.

“Look, we created these institutions. They did become a source of resiliency for us. They helped us get through this very difficult period. Let us help you develop the same kind of resiliency,” he said, describing a hypothetical future conversation between the U.S. and a struggling government. “That would be a positive story to be able to tell at some point, but I don’t think the pieces are quite there yet.”

Pope Francis was more optimistic, telling Italian broadcaster Mediaset: “Thank God this exploded” into the open because “we have been able to see why this is, and how it can be remedied.”

___

Associated Press writers Kirsten Grieshaber and Frank Jordans in Berlin, Abdulrahman Zeyad in Baghdad, Matt Lee in Washington; and Frank Bajak in Boston contributed.