Defense relationship part of US-Iraq talks in Washington next week, US official says

Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani (R) speaks next to US Major General Joel “J.B.” Vowell during a meeting with top-ranking officials of the Iraqi armed forces and of the US-led coalition as part of the first round of talks on the future of American and other foreign troops in the country, in Baghdad, on January 27, 2024. (AFP)
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Updated 12 April 2024
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Defense relationship part of US-Iraq talks in Washington next week, US official says

  • Washington and Baghdad began talks in January to reassess the US-led military coalition presence there

WASHINGTON: The security and defense relationship between the US and Iraq will be an important part of talks when Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani visits Washington next week but is not the primary focus of the visit, a senior State Department official said on Thursday.
The official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, said the emphasis of Sudani’s visit would be economic ties, even as Washington and Baghdad are in talks over ending the US-led military coalition in the country.
US forces and Shiite Muslim armed groups have engaged in tit-for-tat attacks in recent months amid regional conflict linked to Israel’s war in Gaza, leading to Sudani in January announcing his intention to end the US military presence.
The senior State Department official said the defense and security relationship will be part of the discussions during Sudani’s visit, when he will meet both with President Joe Biden and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin as well as Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
“(It is) likely to be a very important part of our – of the discussion,” the official said. “It is not the primary focus of the visit ... but it is almost certainly going to come up.”
The visit’s focus will instead be the economy and issues including education, environment and US support for development, the official said, without providing details.
“We’re going to have a full range of discussions about our relationship and where it’s going,” the official said.
The US invaded Iraq in 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein and withdrew in 2011, only for troops to return in 2014 to help fight Islamic State (IS) after the extremist Sunni Muslim militant group overran large parts of the country.
Washington and Baghdad began talks in January to reassess the US-led military coalition presence there.
The official said those talks were likely to lead to a second joint security cooperation dialogue later this year.


Zelensky calls for measures to preserve Ukraine’s energy system

Updated 10 sec ago
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Zelensky calls for measures to preserve Ukraine’s energy system

“Life in Ukraine must be preserved and that includes in particular energy security,” Zelensky said
Drone and missile strikes have knocked out half of energy generating capacity since March

KYIV: President Volodymyr Zelensky announced on Thursday a set of measures to protect Ukraine’s energy system, including protection for plants coming under Russian fire and the development of alternative renewable energy sources.
“Life in Ukraine must be preserved and that includes in particular energy security,” Zelensky said in his nightly video address.
Russia pounded Ukraine’s energy system in the first winter of the war, launched in February 2022, and renewed its assault on energy targets last March as Ukraine was running low on stocks of Western air defense missiles.
Drone and missile strikes have knocked out half of energy generating capacity since March, according to official accounts.
Attacks overnight on Thursday hit four regions and cut power to more than 218,000 consumers, the Energy Ministry said.
Zelensky outlined plans to minimize the effects of such attacks, including a program of developing solar energy and energy storage facilities and a schedule for critical infrastructure sites to come up with alternative energy sources.
The work, he said, must be completed before winter and the increased energy demand associated with the change in seasons.
Zelensky said the government would “continue to work on creating new energy generation and new decentralized energy capacities.” Also planned was “the construction of new balanced and manoeuvrable capacities for energy.”
“This process is quite challenging in wartime conditions, but we must implement it just as we have already implemented many difficulty projects,” he said.
And work was proceeding, Zelensky said, on measures to protect existing energy sites.
Russia says energy infrastructure is a legitimate military target and denies targeting civilians or civilian infrastructure.

Somalia government asks African peacekeepers to slow withdrawal

A Somali security officer stands guard near the scene of a terror attack in Mogadishu. (Reuters file photo)
Updated 45 min 24 sec ago
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Somalia government asks African peacekeepers to slow withdrawal

  • Warning on potential security vacuum
  • US, EU concerned about long-term financing

MOGADISHU: Somalia’s government is seeking to slow the withdrawal of African peacekeepers and warning of a potential security vacuum, documents seen by Reuters show, with neighboring countries fretting that resurgent Al-Shabab extremists could seize power.

The African Union Transition Mission in Somalia, a peacekeeping force, is committed to withdrawing by Dec. 31, when a smaller new force is expected to replace it.
However, in a letter last month to the acting chair of the African Union Peace and Security Council, the government asked to delay until September the withdrawal of half the 4,000 troops due to leave by the end of June. The letter has not been reported before.

BACKGROUND

The African Union Transition Mission in Somalia — a peacekeeping force — is committed to withdrawing by Dec. 31, when a smaller new force is expected to replace it.

The government had previously recommended, in a joint assessment with the AU in March, reviewed by Reuters, that the overall withdrawal timeline be adjusted “based on the actual readiness and capabilities” of Somali forces.
The joint assessment, mandated by the UN Security Council, warned that a “hasty drawdown of ATMIS personnel will contribute to a security vacuum.”
“I’ve never been more concerned about the direction of my home country,” said Mursal Khalif, an independent member of the defense committee in parliament.
The EU and US, the top funders of the AU force in Somalia, have sought to reduce the peacekeeping operation due to concerns about long-term financing and sustainability, four diplomatic sources and a senior Ugandan official said.
Three of the diplomatic sources said that negotiations about a new force have proven complicated, with the AU initially pushing for a more robust mandate than Somalia wanted. A heated political dispute could lead Ethiopia to pull out some of the most battle-hardened troops.
Somalia’s presidency and prime minister’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Mohammed El-Amine Souef, AU special representative to Somalia and head of ATMIS, said there was no definitive timeline for concluding negotiations but that all parties were committed to an agreement that helps achieve sustainable peace and security.
“The AU and Somalia’s government have emphasized the importance of a conditions-based drawdown to prevent any security vacuum,” he said.
The Peace and Security Council was due to discuss the drawdown and follow-up mission.
With 5,000 of around 18,500 troops leaving last year, the government has projected confidence as the drawdown proceeds.
It has said the new force should not exceed 10,000 and should be limited to tasks like securing major population centers.
The call for a smaller force likely reflects views of nationalists who oppose a heavy foreign presence in Somalia, said Rashid Abdi, an analyst with Sahan Research, a Nairobi-based think tank focused on the Horn of Africa.
Uganda and Kenya, which contributed troops to the departing mission, are also worried.
Henry Okello Oryem, Uganda’s state minister of foreign affairs, said that despite intensive training efforts, Somali troops could not sustain a long-term military confrontation.
“We do not want to get into a situation where we are fleeing, the kind of thing that we saw in Afghanistan,” he told Reuters.
Oryem said Kenya accepted the drawdown requested by the US and EU but that countries’ concerns with forces in Somalia should be heard.
Kenyan President William Ruto said in Washington last month that a withdrawal that did not account for conditions on the ground would mean “the terrorists will take over Somalia.”
In response to questions, an EU spokesperson said it was focused on building domestic security capacities and supported, in principle, a Somali government proposal for a new mission with a reduced size and scope.
A US State Department spokesperson said the force should be large enough to prevent a security vacuum.
The spokesperson said that Washington has supported all requests submitted by the AU to the UN Security Council to modify the drawdown timeline.
In response to a question about Ethiopian forces, the spokesperson said it was critical to avoid security gaps or unnecessary expenses “incurred by swapping out existing troop contributors.”
Two years ago, an army offensive in central Somalia initially seized large swathes of territory from Al-Shabab. In August, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamed declared his intention to “eliminate” the powerful Al-Qaeda offshoot within five months.
But just a few days later, Al-Shabab counter-attacked, retaking the town of Cowsweyne.
They killed scores of soldiers and beheaded several civilians accused of supporting the army, according to a soldier, an allied militiaman, and a resident.
“This broke the hearts of Somalis but gave courage to Al-Shabab,” Ahmed Abdulle, the militiaman from a clan in central Somalia, said in an interview in April.
The Somali government has never publicly provided a death toll for the Cowsweyne battle and didn’t respond to a request for a toll for this story.
“There were enough troops in Cowsweyne, over a battalion, but they were not organized well,” said a soldier named Issa, who fought in the battle there last August.
Issa said car bombs had blasted through the gates of the Cowsweyne army camp on the day of the attack, citing a shortage of defensive outposts to protect bases from such attacks.
Ten soldiers, militiamen from local clans, and residents in areas targeted by the military campaign reported that there had been no army operations in the past two months following additional battlefield setbacks.
Reuters could not independently establish the extent of the territorial losses to Al-Shabab.
On X this week, Somalia’s National Security Adviser said that the army had held most of its gains.
The peacekeepers’ withdrawal could make it more difficult to hold territory.
While analysts estimate Somalia’s army to be around 32,000 soldiers, the government acknowledged, in the assessment with the AU, a shortage of some 11,000 trained personnel due to “high operational tempo” and “attrition.”
The government has said its soldiers can confront Al-Shabab with limited external support.
Somalia has defied gloomy predictions and expanded its security forces in recent years.
Residents of the seaside capital Mogadishu — whose ubiquitous blast walls testify to the threat of Shabab suicide bombers and mortars — say security has improved.
Once-quiet streets bustle with traffic, and upscale restaurants and supermarkets are opening.
An assessment published in April by the Combating Terrorism Center at the US Military Academy said an Afghanistan-like collapse was unlikely, helped by ongoing external support.
The US, for instance, has about 450 troops in Somalia to train and advise local forces and conduct regular drone attacks against suspected militants.
But the assessment’s author, Paul D. Williams, a professor of international affairs at George Washington University, said the militants’ estimated 7,000-12,000 fighters would be “slightly militarily stronger” than Somali forces because of superior cohesion and force employment.
Foreign resources have underwritten Somalia’s security since Ethiopia invaded in 2006, toppling an extremist-led administration but galvanizing an insurgency that has since killed tens of thousands of people.
According to a study by Brown University, the US has spent more than $2.5 billion on counterterrorism assistance since 2007. That number does not include undisclosed military and intelligence spending on activities like drone strikes and deployments of American ground troops.
The EU says it has provided about $2.8 billion to ATMIS and its predecessor since 2007.
Middle Eastern countries also provide security assistance.
But resources are under strain. Four diplomatic sources said that the EU, which pays for most of ATMIS’s roughly $100 million annual budget, is shifting toward bilateral support to reduce its overall contributions in the medium term.
Two diplomats interviewed by Reuters said the US and EU want to scale back peacekeeping operations because of competing spending priorities, including Ukraine and Gaza, and a sense Somalia should take responsibility for its security.
The four diplomatic sources said that some European countries would like to see the new mission financed through assessed contributions of UN member states, which would increase the financial burden on the US and China.
The State Department spokesperson said that the US did not believe such a system could be implemented by next year but that there was strong international consensus to support the follow-on mission.
The EU did not address questions about the financing of the replacement mission
Financing for the new mission can only be formally addressed once Somalia and the AU agree on a proposed size and mandate.

 


Thousands of young Kenyans protest tax hikes

Updated 45 min 39 sec ago
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Thousands of young Kenyans protest tax hikes

  • Hours after Tuesday’s demonstrations, which saw hundreds of youth face off against the police, the government agreed to make concessions, rolling back several of the tax hikes laid out in a new bill

NAIROBI: Thousands of young demonstrators took to the streets across Kenya on Thursday to protest tax hikes, blowing whistles and chanting slogans in a vivid show of anger by Gen-Z protesters against the government.
Police in Nairobi fired tear gas and water cannon against groups of protesters near parliament, but apart from isolated scuffles earlier in the day, the action — dubbed “Occupy Parliament” — remained mostly peaceful.
Led largely by young Kenyans, the demonstrations began in Nairobi on Tuesday before spreading nationwide on Thursday.
They have galvanized widespread discontent over President William Ruto’s economic policies in a country already grappling with a cost-of-living crisis.
Hours after Tuesday’s demonstrations, which saw hundreds of youth face off against the police, the government agreed to make concessions, rolling back several of the tax hikes laid out in a new bill.
However, the government still intends to proceed with some tax increases and has defended the proposed levies necessary for filling its coffers and cutting reliance on external borrowing.
On Thursday, protests were held across Kenya, with thousands assembling across Nairobi, the Indian Ocean city of Mombasa, the Rift Valley city of Nakuru, and the opposition bastion of Kisumu, according to images broadcast on TV.
Isolated scuffles broke out in Nairobi between protesters and police, who used tear gas and water cannons at demonstrators gathering near the parliament, which began debating the bill on Wednesday.
Despite a heavy police presence and roadblocks along several roads leading to parliament, hundreds of protesters gathered in groups, blowing whistles and vuvuzelas, waving placards and chanting: “Ruto must go.”
Ivy, a 26-year-old job seeker dressed in a T-shirt and leggings, said she was prompted to protest for the first time on Thursday because she was “scared” for her future.
“This bill cannot pass. This bill is going to finish us. We don’t have jobs. We cannot even open businesses. We cannot do anything in this country,” she said.
Another first-time protester, Bella, said she had shown up “to ensure the finance bill is rejected.”
The 22-year-old university graduate said she was “not impressed” with the government’s concessions earlier this week.
On Tuesday, the presidency announced the removal of proposed levies on bread purchases, car ownership, and financial and mobile services, prompting a warning from the treasury of a 200-billion-shilling shortfall due to budget cuts.
The government has now targeted an increase in fuel prices and export taxes to fill the void left by the changes, a move critics say will make life more expensive in a country already battling high inflation.
“They are just trying to lie to us. The taxes they have removed on bread they have added somewhere else,” Bella said, describing it as a tactic to “blindfold” citizens.
A parliament source said that a vote on the proposals was expected on June 27, three days before the deadline for passing the bill.
The taxes were projected to raise 346.7 billion shillings ($2.7 billion), equivalent to 1.9 percent of GDP, and reduce the budget deficit from 5.7 percent to 3.3 percent.
The protest in Nairobi on Tuesday saw black-clad protesters forced into cat-and-mouse chases with police who fired volleys of teargas.
At least 335 people were arrested, according to a consortium of lobby groups, including the Human Rights Commission, KNCHR, and Amnesty Kenya.
“We have changed tack. Today, we will be in colorful and defiant clothing to avoid a repeat of them arresting everyone in black,” said an organizer of the march, who requested anonymity due to fear of reprisals.
Kenya is one of the most dynamic economies in East Africa, but a third of its 51.5 million people live in poverty.
Overall inflation has remained stubbornly high, at an annual rate of 5.1 percent in May, while food and fuel inflation stood at 6.2 percent and 7.8 percent, respectively, according to central bank data.

 


India court grants top Modi opponent bail

Updated 20 June 2024
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India court grants top Modi opponent bail

  • Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi’s chief minister, was first detained over long-running corruption probe in March 
  • PM Modi’s party lost its overall parliamentary majority in the polls and now leads a coalition government

New Delhi: An Indian court granted bail Thursday to one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s chief opponents, who was first detained over a long-running corruption probe in March.

Arvind Kejriwal, the chief minister of Delhi and the leader of the opposition Aam Aadmi party, denies the charges as a “political conspiracy” by Modi and his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

He was released from detention to campaign partway through the country’s weeks-long national election but returned to jail after voting ended earlier this month.

Modi’s BJP lost its overall parliamentary majority in the poll and now leads a coalition government.

“Truth alone triumphs,” Atishi, a minister in Kejriwal’s regional government, posted on X after the court ruling.

Kejriwal is expected to walk out of jail on Friday, days before a new parliamentary session starts Monday.\

The Delhi chief minister is a key member of the opposition INDIA bloc, led by the main opposition Congress party, which defied all polls and observers’ expectations to significantly improve its national tally.

“When power becomes dictatorship, then jail becomes a responsibility,” Kejriwal said before surrendering himself to authorities earlier this month.

He is one of several opposition leaders in India under criminal investigation over various corruption-related probes, which Modi’s opponents say are being used by the premier to weaken any potential challengers.\

Kejriwal, 55, has been chief minister of Delhi, the region which includes the capital New Delhi, for nearly a decade and first came to office as a staunch anti-corruption crusader.

His government was itself accused of corruption when it liberalized liquor sales in 2021 and gave up a lucrative government stake in the sector.

The policy was withdrawn the following year but a resulting probe into the allegedly corrupt allocation of licenses has since led to the jailing of two top Kejriwal allies.


Treason trial of Russian American woman opens as tensions rise between Washington and Moscow

Updated 20 June 2024
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Treason trial of Russian American woman opens as tensions rise between Washington and Moscow

  • The defendant was identified by Russian authorities as Los Angeles resident Ksenia Karelina
  • Russia's main domestic security agency, the Federal Security Service, charges that Karelina raised money for a Ukrainian organization

MOSCOW: The trial of a Russian American dual citizen whom Russia accuses of treason opened on Thursday as tensions rise between Washington and Moscow, including over the arrests of two American journalists.
The trial is being held behind closed doors in Yekaterinburg, in the same court that next week is to begin hearing the case of Evan Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter who was arrested in March 2023 and charged with espionage.
The defendant was identified by Russian authorities as Los Angeles resident Ksenia Karelina, although U.S. media reports frequently use the surname Khavana, the name of her ex-husband.
Karelina was born in Yekaterinburg and was arrested in February while visiting her family.
Russia's main domestic security agency, the Federal Security Service, charges that Karelina raised money for a Ukrainian organization that was providing weapons, ammunition and other supplies to the Ukrainian military. Her boyfriend has said she made a single donation of about $50 to a Ukrainian organization, according to media reports.
Karelina faces a sentence of up to 20 years in prison if convicted. Almost all Russian criminal cases that make it to court end in convictions. The trial was adjourned in the afternoon and the next session was set for Aug. 7, Russian news agencies said.
Gershkovich, the highest-profile American behind bars in Russia, is accused of gathering secret information from a tank factory in Nizhny Tagil, about 150 kilometers (90 miles) north of Yekaterinburg. His employers deny the allegation, and the U.S. State Department has declared him to be wrongfully detained.
Gershkovich's trial, also closed, is to begin next Wednesday.
A journalist for U.S.-funded Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe with U.S. and Russian dual citizenship has been held since October on charges of gathering military information and failing to register as a foreign agent.
Since sending troops into Ukraine in February 2022, Russia has sharply cracked down on dissent and has passed laws that criminalize criticism of the operation in Ukraine and remarks considered to discredit the Russian military. Concern has risen since then that Russia could be targeting U.S. nationals for arrest.