Iran deal architect among veterans named for Biden State Department

Wendy Sherman, who brokered the Iran accord under Barack Obama and negotiated a nuclear deal with North Korea under Bill Clinton, was named as deputy secretary of state. (File/AFP)
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Updated 16 January 2021

Iran deal architect among veterans named for Biden State Department

WASHINGTON: The lead US negotiator of the Iran nuclear accord and a battle-tested hawk on Russia were named Saturday to top posts at President-elect Joe Biden’s State Department, signaling a return to normal after Donald Trump’s chaotic presidency.
Wendy Sherman, who brokered the Iran accord under Barack Obama and negotiated a nuclear deal with North Korea under Bill Clinton, was named as deputy secretary of state.
Victoria Nuland, a former career diplomat best known for her robust support for Ukrainian protesters in the ouster of a Russian-aligned president, was nominated under secretary for political affairs — the State Department’s third-ranking post in charge of day-to-day US diplomacy.
Biden said that the State Department nominees “have secured some of the most defining national security and diplomatic achievements in recent memory.”
“I am confident that they will use their diplomatic experience and skill to restore America’s global and moral leadership. America is back,” Biden said in a statement.
The State Department team will work under secretary of state-designate Antony Blinken, whose confirmation hearing will take place on Tuesday on the eve of Biden’s inauguration.
Blinken said that the State Department team, with women and ethnic minorities in prominent positions, “looks like America.”
“America at its best still has a greater capacity than any other country on earth to mobilize others to meet the challenges of our time,” Blinken said.
The optimism comes amid rising doubts about US leadership in Trump’s waning days after his supporters ransacked the Capitol on January 6 to try to stop the ceremonial certification of Biden’s victory.
Under outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a staunch defender of Trump, the United States has aggressively challenged Iran and China, robustly backed Israel and toyed with improving ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, while also imposing sanctions on Moscow.
Sherman’s nomination marks another clear sign that Biden wants to return to the accord under which Iran drastically slashed its nuclear program in exchange for promises of sanctions relief.
Trump exited the deal in 2018 and imposed sweeping sanctions in what many observers saw as an unsuccessful attempt to topple the Shiite clerical regime.

SUV in crash where 13 died came through hole in border fence

Updated 04 March 2021

SUV in crash where 13 died came through hole in border fence

HOLTVILLE, California: The 13 people killed in one of the deadliest highway crashes involving migrants sneaking into the US had entered California through a section of border fence with Mexico that was cut away, apparently by smugglers, immigration officials said Wednesday.
Surveillance video showed a Ford Expedition and Chevrolet Suburban drive through the opening early Tuesday, said Gregory Bovino, the Border Patrol’s El Centro sector chief. The video has not been publicly released because it’s part of an ongoing investigation.
The Suburban carried 19 people, and it caught fire for unknown reasons on a nearby interstate after entering the US. All escaped the vehicle and were taken into custody by Border Patrol agents.
The Expedition crammed with 25 people continued on, and a tractor-trailer struck it a short time later. Ten of the 13 killed in that crash have been identified as Mexican citizens. The Border Patrol said its agents were not pursuing the vehicle before the wreck.
The opening in the fence was about 30 miles (48 kilometers) east of the crash in the heart of California’s Imperial Valley, a major farming region now at the height of a harvest that provides much of the lettuce, onions, broccoli and winter vegetables to US supermarkets.
It was made of steel bollards that were built before former President Donald Trump blanketed much of the border with taller barriers that go deeper into the ground. Photos show a panel of eight steel poles was lifted out and left on the ground in the desert next to an old tire and other debris.
“Human smugglers have proven time and again they have little regard for human life,” Bovino said. “Those who may be contemplating crossing the border illegally should pause to think of the dangers that all too often end in tragedy, tragedies our Border Patrol Agents and first responders are unfortunately very familiar with.”
The breach occurred in a busy area for illegal crossings near the Imperial Sand Dunes where migrants often climb over an aging barrier and wait for drivers to pick them up, hoping to avoid the scrutiny of Border Patrol agents at checkpoints on highways leading to Los Angeles, San Diego and Phoenix.
A pandemic-related measure that allows the Border Patrol to expel people without an opportunity to seek asylum potentially leads some to try to evade authorities instead of surrendering, sometimes with fatal consequences. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention introduced expulsion powers nearly a year ago under Trump, and the Biden administration has signaled no plans to lift them anytime soon.
The cause of Tuesday’s collision wasn’t yet known, authorities said. The Expedition is built to hold eight people safely, but smugglers are known to pack people into vehicles in extremely unsafe conditions to maximize their profits.
Seats in the SUV had been removed except for those for the driver and front passenger, said Omar Watson, chief of the California Highway Patrol’s border division.
The crash happened in an area that became a major route for illegal border crossings in the late 1990s after heightened enforcement in San Diego pushed migrants to more remote areas.
Barely a mile from the crash, there is a cemetery with rows of unmarked bricks that is a burial ground for migrants who died crossing the border.
In 2001, John Hunter founded Water Station, a volunteer group that leaves jugs of water in giant plastic drums for dehydrated migrants.
“I was trying to figure out how to stop the deaths,” said Hunter, whose brother Duncan strongly advocated for border wall construction as a congressman.
Illegal crossings in the area fell sharply in the mid-2000s but the area has remained a draw for migrants and was a priority for wall construction under Trump. His administration’s first wall project was in Calexico.
When police arrived Tuesday at the crash site about 125 miles (200 kilometers) east of San Diego, some passengers were trying to crawl out of the crumpled SUV. Others were wandering around the nearby fields. The big rig’s front end was pushed into the SUV’s left side and two empty trailers were jackknifed behind it.
The men and women in the SUV ranged in age from 15 to 53, and those who survived had injuries that were minor to severe, including fractures and head trauma, officials said. The driver was from Mexicali, Mexico, just across the border, and was among those killed.
The 68-year-old driver of the big rig, who is from the nearby California community of El Centro, suffered moderate injuries.
The crash occurred around 6:15 a.m. under a clear, sunny sky at an intersection just outside the community of Holtville, about 11 miles (18 kilometers) north of the border. Authorities said the tractor-trailer was heading north on a highway when the SUV pulled in front of it from a road with a stop sign.
It’s not clear if the SUV ran the stop sign or had stopped before entering the highway. How fast both vehicles were going also wasn’t yet known.
A 1997 Ford Expedition can carry a maximum payload of 2,000 pounds. If it had 25 people inside, that would easily exceed the payload limit, taxing the brakes and making it tougher to steer the vehicle, said Frank Borris, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Office of Defects Investigation.
“You’re going to have extended stopping distances, delayed reactions to steering inputs and potential overreaction to any type of high-speed lane change,” said Borris, who now runs a safety consulting business.

Pentagon hesitated on sending Guard to US Capitol riot, general tells Senate probe

Updated 04 March 2021

Pentagon hesitated on sending Guard to US Capitol riot, general tells Senate probe

  • The hourslong delay cost the National Guard precious minutes in the early hours of the Jan. 6 rioting by Trump supporters
  • Security boosted again amid warnings of a “possible plot” by a militia group to breach the Capitol on March 4

WASHINGTON: Defense Department leaders placed unusual restrictions on the National Guard for the day of the Capitol riot and delayed sending help for hours despite an urgent plea from police for reinforcement, according to testimony Wednesday that added to the finger-pointing about the government response.
Maj. Gen. William Walker, commanding general of the District of Columbia National Guard, told senators that the then-chief of the Capitol Police requested military support in a “voice cracking with emotion” in a 1:49 p.m. call as rioters began pushing toward the Capitol. Walker said he immediately relayed the request to the Army but did not learn until after 5 p.m. that the Defense Department had approved it. Guard troops who had been waiting on buses were then rushed to the Capitol, arriving in 18 minutes, Walker said.
The hourslong delay cost the National Guard precious minutes in the early hours of the Jan. 6 rioting, with Walker saying he could have gotten personnel into the building within 20 minutes of getting approval. As it stood, the support did not happen until the evening. The delay also stood in contrast to the swift authorization for National Guard support that Walker said was granted in response to the civil unrest that roiled Washington last June as an outgrowth of racial justice protests.
A senior Pentagon official who testified, Robert Salesses, said it took time for the Army to sort out what the National Guard was being asked to do and what its support might look like, especially since the Capitol Police days earlier had not asked for any help. Mindful of criticism that the response to the demonstrations last spring was heavy-handed, military officials were also concerned about the optics of a substantial National Guard presence at the Capitol, and that such visuals could inflame the rioters, Walker said.
“The Army senior leadership” expressed “that it would not be their best military advice to have uniformed Guardsmen on the Capitol,” Walker said.
The Senate hearing is the latest about the missed intelligence and botched efforts to quickly gather National Guard troops as a mob of then-President Donald Trump’s supporters laid siege to the Capitol. Taken together, the hearings have spelled out the challenge law enforcement officials face in sorting through an ocean of unverified tips but also highlighted how police inadequately prepared for the Trump loyalists; that FBI warnings about the threat of violence did not reach top police officials; and that requests for aid were not promptly answered.
“We in the FBI want to bat 1,000, and we want to not have this ever happen again,” said Jill Sanborn, the bureau’s top counterterrorism official and one of the witnesses. “So we’re asking ourselves exactly the questions that you’re asking: Is there a place we could have collected more (intelligence)? Is there something we could have done?”
Meanwhile, the Capitol Police disclosed the existence of intelligence of a “possible plot” by a militia group to breach the Capitol on Thursday. The revelation, coming as the acting police chief was testifying before a House subcommittee, differed from an earlier advisory from the House sergeant-at-arms that said police had no indication that any such violence was planned.
Much of the focus at Wednesday’s Senate hearing was on communications between the National Guard and the Defense Department. Walker described an “unusual” directive that required Pentagon approval before deploying a specialized 40-member “quick reaction force” and before relocating personnel from one traffic intersection to another.
As chaos escalated on Jan. 6, then-Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund asked him for National Guard help in a frantic call and then again on a call with Army officials, who said they did not “think that it looked good” to have a military presence.
“The response to the request took too long, so I think there needs to be a study done to make sure that never happens again,” Walker said. “It shouldn’t take three hours to get a yes or no answer.”
That account was consistent with the recollection of Robert Contee, the acting chief of police for the Metropolitan Police Department, who told lawmakers last week that he was “stunned” by the delayed response. Contee said Sund pleaded with Army officials to deploy National Guard troops as the rioting escalated.
Walker’s testimony, however, conflicts a bit with timelines that were put out and discussed by senior military and defense leaders in the weeks after the riot.
According to the Defense Department, Walker was called at 3 p.m. by Army officials, and was told to prepare Guard troops to deploy. That call was designed to give the Guard notice of the impending deployment so they would have time to move troops from their traffic posts to the armory where they would get new orders, protective equipment and weapons.
The Pentagon said acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller gave verbal authorization for the Guard troops to deploy at about 4:30 p.m., and that at 5:02 p.m., 154 members of the D.C. Guard left the armory, heading to the Capitol.
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, said during a break in the hearing that senators “certainly will have questions” for Miller and for former Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy.
“Whether that’s going to require testimony or not, I don’t know, but it’s definitely going to require an opportunity to ask them questions about their view, from their perspective, of why this decision-making process went so horribly wrong,” Blunt said.
Salesses, the senior Pentagon official, stressed that military officials were concerned about responding forcefully to civil disturbance in light of what happened last spring, “where we had helicopters flying above US citizens, we had spy planes flying over folks who were protesting.”
The Capitol Police had not previously requested National Guard help, and in letters to Walker, District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser laid out the city’s request for help and made it clear there would be restrictions on the Guard members.
At last week’s hearing, officials in charge of Capitol security blamed one another as well as federal law enforcement for their own lack of preparation as hundreds of rioters descended on the building, easily breached the security perimeter and eventually broke into the Capitol. Five people died as a result of the rioting.
Thousands of National Guard troops are still patrolling the fenced-in Capitol, and multiple committees across Congress are investigating Jan. 6. The probes are largely focused on security missteps and the origins of the extremism that led hundreds of Trump supporters to break through the doors and windows of the Capitol, hunt for lawmakers and temporarily stop the counting of electoral votes.
Lawmakers have grilled law enforcement officials about missed intelligence ahead of the attack, including a report from an FBI field office in Virginia that warned of online posts foreshadowing a “war” in Washington. Sund has said he was unaware of the report at the time, even though the FBI had forwarded it to the department.
Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray said the report was disseminated through the FBI’s joint terrorism task force, discussed at a command post and posted on an Internet portal available to law enforcement agencies.
Though the information was raw and unverified, Wray said, it was specific and concerning enough that “the smartest thing to do, the most prudent thing to do, was just push it to the people who needed to get it.”

UN fears return to ‘square one’ in treatment of Rohingya by Myanmar

Updated 04 March 2021

UN fears return to ‘square one’ in treatment of Rohingya by Myanmar

  • Coup leaders intend to review plans in place to address the refugee crisis and investigate war crimes, said envoy

NEW YORK: The UN’s special envoy to Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, on Wednesday warned of the latest threat to the Rohingya Muslim minority in the country.
The Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s armed forces, which seized control of the country last month in a coup, said it intends to review the recommendations of the 2018 Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. This was chaired by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan with the aim of ending the Rohingya crisis.
On Aug. 25, 2017 attacks against police and military forces by an armed group identified as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), prompted the launch of so-called “clearance operations.” In addition to military and civilian casualties, this resulted in the mass displacement of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who were forced to flee from Rakhine across the border to Bangladesh.
In addition to reconsidering the recommendations of the Annan commission, the coup leaders are also reviewing the work of the Independent Commission of Inquiry. This was established at the request of civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s government to investigate the 2017 attacks and their consequences, including allegations of human rights violations and war crimes, with a view to holding guilty parties accountable and finding a path to peace.
Schraner Burgener said that if the Tatmadaw follows through on its stated intention to reevaluate the work of the two commissions, “then I really fear that they will go back to square one with the treatment of Rohingya.”
In its report, the Annan commission presented the government with 88 recommendations, including the granting of full humanitarian and media access to the conflict zones, and an impartial investigation of human rights abuses allegedly carried out by the Tatmadaw.
It urged the government to close all camps for internally displaced people in Rakhine state in accordance with international standards, combat hate speech against members of the Muslim minority, and take steps to give them a voice in the country and allow freedom of movement.
It also called for Myanmar’s citizenship-verification process to be accelerated by overhauling the 1982 citizenship law, the provisions of which are responsible for thousands of Rohingya remaining stateless. There were also a number of recommendations relating to economic development, infrastructure, health, education, rule of law and cultural development.
Schraner Burgener said that Soe Win, the deputy commander-in-chief of the Tatmadaw, initially assured her that efforts based on the commission’s report to address the Rohingya refugee crisis would “absolutely continue.”
However, she said she was later surprised to learn that the Administrative Council established after the coup planned to conduct an investigation into Annan’s work on the grounds that it had been carried out “in the self-interest of an individual without taking national interest into consideration.” The individual in question is Aung San Suu Kyi, the envoy said.
Schraner Burgener added that she intends to ask Soe Win for an explanation the next time they speak.

US envoy ‘pushing for new Kabul leadership’

Updated 04 March 2021

US envoy ‘pushing for new Kabul leadership’

  • Doha talks to be scrapped under draft plan to speed peace process, sources say

DOHA: The US special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, reportedly suggested setting up a new government in Kabul during recent talks with key Afghan leaders, two sources privy to the matter told Arab News on Wednesday.

The reported proposal follows a deadlock in US-brokered talks that began in September last year between the Taliban and the Afghan government in Doha, Qatar.

One of the key conditions of a historic deal signed between the US and Taliban last February was for Washington to withdraw the remaining 2,500 US troops from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021, and end America’s longest war.

However, uncertainty remains over whether international forces will pull out troops by May as initially planned after US officials reportedly said that President Joe Biden’s administration was conducting a review of the February accord signed between the Trump administration and the Taliban.

A subsequent NATO statement said that the troops would leave Afghanistan “when the time was right.”

They argue that US-led foreign troops need to remain in Afghanistan because the Taliban “has stepped up its attacks and seeks to regain power once again by force.”

The Taliban has denied the claims, adding that it remains committed to the deal, and warning that the US will face consequences if it seeks to breach the accord.

On Sunday, the US State Department said that Khalilzad and his team were visiting Kabul and Doha, where the Taliban have their political headquarters, to ensure “a just and durable political settlement and permanent and comprehensive cease-fire.”

The envoy’s discussions with Afghan leaders are the first since Biden assumed office in January this year.

On Wednesday, two sources — one close to former Afghan president Hamid Karzai and the other a confidante of Abdullah Abdullah, head of the High Council of National Reconciliation — said that Khalilzad had submitted a draft plan for a “participatory government” to the two leaders and President Ashraf Ghani.

“He has shared this plan and expects a response,” one of the sources, who declined to be named since he is not authorized to speak to the media, told Arab News.

Meanwhile, Dawa Khan Menapal, a spokesperson for Ghani, and the Taliban refused to comment on the matter when contacted by Arab News.

Under Khalilzad’s proposal, the Doha peace talks would be scrapped and an international gathering — similar to the Bonn conference, which was held soon after the Taliban’s ouster in late 2001 — would be summoned.

Rumours surrounding the formation of a transitional government have been doing the rounds in Afghan political circles in recent months, with Ghani’s beleaguered administration facing growing criticism for inefficiency, corruption, and failure to curb violence and Taliban attacks across the country.

Several factional leaders, including the head of parliament, Mir Rahman Rahmani, and government-appointed peace negotiators for the intra-Afghan talks have been pushing for Ghani to be replaced.

“I think there is no other way than this. A similar Bonn meeting is needed because the talks have stalled and there is no hope for a revival. Fighting has escalated,” Hamidullah Tokhi, an MP from southern Zabul, told Arab News.

But before that all groups must agree to a “permanent cease-fire and on the setup of the future government, its composition and how it would be created,” he added.

“It is natural that Ghani will have to sacrifice, and the Taliban, too, for the sake of peace. Do we have to lose 200 to 300 soldiers every day until his term is over and a similar number of Taliban and civilians?” he said.

Ghani began his second five-year term last year and has repeatedly vowed to block the formation of a provisional government in Afghanistan after calls for establishing a temporary setup began to gain ground.

“As long as I am alive, they will not see the formation of an interim government. I am not like those willows that bend with the wind,” Ghani said on Feb. 21.

He argued that in such a scenario, Afghanistan could face a “similar bloody and chaotic situation like the 1990s” when the then Moscow-backed administration replaced an interim government.

Earlier, the Afghan leader said that he would transfer power to his successor only after his tenure ended in 2025. Experts believe that there is no option left for Afghanistan.

“To secure peace, one needs first to fix an internal accord between Afghans,” Torek Farhadi, an adviser for the former government and an advocate of a transitional administration, told Arab News.

“Afghanistan’s distressing situation has internal and regional drivers. We must obtain regional guarantees of non-interference from Afghanistan’s immediate neighbors and India. To arrange such guarantees, we need the US to take the lead before US and NATO leave, ” he added.

Farhadi said that if a “participative government” were formed, it would not accord all power to the Taliban, adding that “it is also a government where the decision-making process on resources and appointments are more democratic.”

“A Bonn type of meeting ensures everyone has a voice, including Afghanistan’s immediate neighbors, plus the US, Russia and China and, of course, India. The international format offers a chance for all these players to be at the table. The outcome of the conference will gain legitimacy with a UN stamp and guarantee, ” he said.

Myanmar security forces shoot dead more protesters despite calls for restraint

Updated 04 March 2021

Myanmar security forces shoot dead more protesters despite calls for restraint

  • The violence took place a day after foreign ministers from Southeast Asian neighbors urged restraint but failed to unite behind a call for the release of Suu Kyi and the restoration of democracy

YANGON: Myanmar security forces opened fire on protests against military rule on Wednesday, killing nine people, witnesses and media reported, a day after neighboring countries called for restraint and offered to help Myanmar resolve the crisis.

The security forces resorted to live fire with little warning in several towns and cities, witnesses said, as the junta appeared more determined than ever to stamp out protests against the Feb. 1 coup that ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.

“It’s horrific, it’s a massacre. No words can describe the situation and our feelings,” youth activist Thinzar Shunlei Yi told Reuters via a messaging app.

A spokesman for the ruling military council did not answer telephone calls seeking comment.

In the central town of Myingyan, where one teenaged boy was killed, protest leader Si Thu Maung, told Reuters police initially fired tear gas and stun grenades but quickly opened fire.

“They didn’t spray us with water cannon, no warning to disperse, they just fired their guns,” he said.

The heaviest toll was in another central town, Monywa, where five people — four men and one woman — were killed, said Ko Thit Sar, editor of the Monywa Gazette.

“We’ve confirmed with family members and doctors, five people have been killed,” he told Reuters.

“At least 30 people are wounded, some still unconscious.”

Two people were killed in the country’s second-biggest city Mandalay, a witness and media reports said, and one person was killed when police opened fire in the main city of Yangon, a witness there said.

At least 31 people have been killed since the coup.

The violence took place a day after foreign ministers from Southeast Asian neighbors urged restraint but failed to unite behind a call for the release of Suu Kyi and the restoration of democracy.

“The country is like the Tiananmen Square in most of its major cities,” the Archbishop of Yangon, Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, said on Twitter, referring to the suppression of student-led protests in Beijing in 1989.

Security forces also detained about 300 protesters as they broke up protests in Yangon, the Myanmar Now news agency reported.

Video posted on social media showed lines of young men, hands on heads, filing into army trucks as police and soldiers stood guard.

Images of a 19-year-old woman, one of the two shot dead in Mandalay, showed her wearing a T-shirt that read “Everything will be OK.”

Police in Yangon ordered three medics out of an ambulance, shot up the windscreen and then kicked and beat the workers with gun butts and batons, video broadcast by US-funded Radio Free Asia showed. Reuters was unable to verify the video independently.

Democracy activist Esther Ze Naw told Reuters that the sacrifices of those who died would not be in vain.

“We will continue this fight and win. We shall overcome this and win,” she said.

On Tuesday, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) failed to make a breakthrough in a virtual foreign ministers’ meeting on Myanmar.

While united in a call for restraint, only four members — Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore — called for the release of Suu Kyi and other detainees.

“We expressed ASEAN’s readiness to assist Myanmar in a positive, peaceful and constructive manner,” the ASEAN chair, Brunei, said in a statement.

Myanmar’s state media said the military-appointed foreign minister, Wunna Maung Lwin, attended the video conference and “apprised the meeting of voting irregularities” in a November election.

The military justified the coup saying its complaints of voter fraud in the Nov. 8 vote were ignored. Suu Kyi’s party won by a landslide, earning a second term.

The election commission said the vote was fair.

Junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has said the intervention was to protect Myanmar’s fledgling democracy and has pledged to hold new elections but given no time frame.

State television has said agitators were mobilizing people on social media and forming “illegal organizations.”

Suu Kyi, 75, has been held incommunicado since the coup but appeared at a court hearing via video conferencing this week and looked in good health, a lawyer said.

She is one of nearly 1,300 people who have been detained, according to activists.

Ousted President Win Myint is facing two new charges, his lawyer, Khin Maung Zaw, said, including one for a breach of the constitution that is punishable by up to three years on prison.

A former United Nations expert on Myanmar said on Wednesday foreign firms should suspend all business there to send a clear message to the military that its coup will hurt its people and ruin its economy.